Walk into Angel’s Diner most anytime it’s open and you’re likely to hear a story.
A good story about how somebody remembers their parents bringing them there when they were young. Or maybe it’s a story about someone recalling their prom date at Florida’s oldest diner.
There are plenty of others to hear if you have time to grab a burger, some onion rings and maybe wash it all down with a pusalow – a drink consisting of ice, milk, chocolate syrup and vanilla mixed just right.
There have been lots of stories told about Angel’s. The diner originally opened as Angel’s Dining Car in 1932 by Porter Angel.
John Browning, owner of the diner since 1980 along with his former wife, Diane, likes to tell the one about the late Rev. Billy Graham.
“He was being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and he sent his assistant here to get six hamburgers and eight T-shirts,” Browning said. “He wanted an Angel’s burger while he was being treated.”
Browning has frequented Angel’s since he was a child, so he knows lots of stories about the diner dating to before the time he purchased it from the Angel family. Getting the chance to tell them proved difficult for him while visiting with me Thursday, as every customer who came in wanted to tell him one of their own regarding the place.
Tom Petty ate there. So, too, did members of Lynyrd Skynrd and the actual Jacksonville teacher the band took its name from – Leonard Skinner.
Ronald Reagan ate here while on a fishing trip nearby as his then-wife Jane Wyman was filming “The Yearling” in the Ocala National Forest in 1946. Other famous patrons include Babe Ruth, Pat Boone and the band Alabama.
“It’s a great American story,” said Tommy Stilwell of East Palatka. “It’s Americana.”
The restaurant started out at the corner of Ninth Street and St. Johns Avenue. It would soon move to Reid Street. It has since become a staple there just a few steps from Memorial Bridge – with the familiar sign at 209 Reid St. marking it as the state’s oldest diner.
And while the diner has developed deep roots in Palatka over nearly 90 years in business, Angel was not from Palatka. According to Larry Beaton, historian for the Putnam County Historical Society, Angel was born April 1, 1900, in Florence, Ala. (The same town where I grew up).
Angel was born on April Fools’ Day, but his interest in the restaurant business was no joke as he turned the diner into a local landmark for regulars and visitors from across the country.
“There’s a cast of characters,” said Tim Smith, one of the Palatka regulars who remembers going to Angel’s as a child.
What draws people there? Those who know say it’s a combination of the atmosphere of the small diner built in the design of a railroad car along with the conversation that can be enjoyed there.
And then there’s the food. “It’s addictive,” said Rafael De La Torre, who recently moved to Crescent City from California.
So what’s different about the food compared to ordinary fast-food joints? Browning said it starts with quality ingredients prepared by workers who care about what they serve and the service they provide.
The ground beef arrives fresh in rolls and is scooped into balls for each patty. Onion rings are cut from onions, breaded and battered, then fried into something that’s irresistible.
But there’s more than the food. It’s the history of the place. It gets crowded, and when it does, you can opt for curbside service or eat at a covered picnic table in the parking lot.
There’s an iron pipe that acts as a foot rest for patrons eating at the bar. The pipe has rested so many feet over nearly 90 years that it has been worn in half.
“How many millions of feet rubbing against it would it take to do that?” Browning asks.
Fact is, Angel’s Diner matters to Palatka. It’s part of its history in a society today that often is ready to bulldoze something old to make way for something new and improved.
Angel’s mattered to Browning when he bought it. And it still does.
“The thing that we say about Angel’s is that this place matters,” Browning said. “It matters to the town and to its history. It’s not about the diner; it’s about the crossroads of people and their lives who have come here.
“People come in here all the time and they’ll say, ‘My daddy was here’ or ‘My grandparents were here.’ It’s the history of the people who have come through here who are unique that makes Angel’s what it is.”
Browning hopes Angel’s continues well into the future with his family running it. The food will still be good; so will the service. The building may need more updates in the future.
Nothing else much will change.
“We think it’s one of the heartbeats of Palatka,” Browning said. “A lot of things have changed. But you’ll take pictures from 20, 30, 40 … almost 90 years ago, and you know what? It looks the same. It’s a landmark.”
My visit Thursday ended with something called a black bottom sandwich. It includes scrambled eggs, bacon, ground beef and some secret ingredients grilled and served on a bun.
It was the first time I’ve tried it and I’ll have it again soon.
Like so many others before me, I’ll be back.