At Angel's Dining Car in Palatka, the regulars have nicknames and "usuals" and routines. They show up in shirts and ties before church and in uniforms before work.
And they're accustomed to the curiosity-seekers who stop by, lured by the restaurant's grounded submarine appearance and the superlative it claims in state history. Angel's is Florida's oldest diner, in operation in Palatka since 1932.
The restaurant has been in the hands of Palatka native John Browning and his ex-wife, Diane, of St. Petersburg. The couple bought it together, then divorced – but still own Angel's, together.
"Angel's is not owned by us; we are the caretakers," John Browning said. "Angel's belongs to Palatka."
The old diner, located in a north-central Florida town once known for logging and cattle ranching, is a popular stop en route to the beaches of Jacksonville, St. Augustine or Daytona Beach. Palatka is about one hour east of Gainesville. Located on the St. Johns River, Palatka is a destination for bass fishermen and is also home to Ravine State Gardens.
"The weekends get really interesting," John Browning said. "You meet all crosses of life. A lot of people come through on their way to somewhere and have been stopping at Angel's since they were kids."
The diner takes its name from its original owner, Porter Angel, and the Brownings purchased it when he died. John Browning even had a personal history with the place: His father once worked as a curb hop at Angel's.
Angel's still offers curb service today. "If you want to eat in your car," said Melissa Streets, a waitress and manager, "just honk."
If you'd prefer a table in the air-conditioned interior, step through one of the three stainless steel doors. This place is so informal that one of those doors will deliver you behind the counter; just keep walking to find a seat.
The Angel's experience is unique because the restaurant doesn't try too hard to capitalize on its history. The jukebox isn't devoted to '50s tunes, but packed with records from throughout the decades. Crooner Pat Boone reportedly used to eat at Angel's while traveling through Florida, but waitresses can barely remember his name.
Recently, however, Angel's brought back some of its mystique by re-installing the old neon that once beckoned travelers from the highway.
Another notable visitor: Christian evangelist Billy Graham, who was baptized in Palatka. When Graham traveled to Jacksonville for medical treatment a few years ago, Browning says, he dispatched an assistant to Angel's to pick up hamburgers.
The Angel's experience is, quite simply, genuine. Breakfast is served all day, and the air is electric with the sounds of waitress-customer banter and short-order cooks dinging a bell when an order is ready. (On days when the cook has a sense of humor, the waitresses ding the bell right back at him.)
Marvin Kimbro, a frequent customer who graduated from Palatka High in 1958 and still stops by to read the morning paper over breakfast at Angel's, says the place has barely changed. "It was the place to gather," Kimbro says. "We'd park cars outside and sit on our hoods."
The menu features down-home, difficult-to-find favorites. Besides the burgers, fried okra, fried green beans, frog legs and hand-breaded onion rings are among the signature dishes. And then there's the "Black Bottom" – a mixture of scrambled eggs, bacon and ground beef, all served on a bun.
If you go...
Address: 209 Reid Street, Palatka, FL 32177