While we’re on the subject of Hilliard, the beloved Starliner Diner recently reopened in a new spot, basically around the corner in this quaint suburb’s “old downtown” area. I haven’t had a chance to check out the latest digs just yet, though I certainly intend to. They turned this process around with admirable haste, when you consider the establishment only closed its doors at 5240 Cemetery Road on May 8, and patrons were left jonesing for their fabled huevos rancheros not even a month before the downtown spot – at 4121 Main Street, the site of Hilliard’s post office many a decade ago – was fully operational.
I’m sure they will import the menu and most of the fanbase, but its legendary charm is a dicier topic. “Is it me, or is this one of these fucked up places that only seem to exist in Columbus?” a friend once remarked, when I brought him to Starliner for the first time, and you would be hard pressed to summarize it better. Where to even begin describing this establishment, at least as it existed until May 2016? The fare is considered mostly Cuban, yet the décor is outer space themed kitsch with, like, a scoop of Elvis and then some other bizarre relics thrown into the blender. Some would call it Americana, but that’s just plain laziness – if anything, it reminds me of someone’s house you’d see in a British movie from the 60s, except with a bunch of crazy American and Mexican decorations thrown in, from the space exploration mural with the free floating astronaut painted along the top half of one wall, a paper machier (I’m guessing?) spaceship dangling from the ceiling, lime green, with a bunch of other futuristic designs painted on it in purple. Hanging elsewhere from the rafters, in a line from the front, plate glass window wall back to a small counter with a refrigerator behind it, there’s lamps, disco balls, and giant Xmas decorations of varying sizes and styles; on one wall, an enormous assortment of clocks, except not a normal looking timepiece in the bunch – we’re talking ten and twenty point stars, or branching off other weird shaped tentacles. With, quite naturally, an Elvis painting smack dab in the middle, as if to break up the monotony. One huge, thin, striped rug covers the entire floor on this half of the room, mostly a dull grey cover, and my favorite artifact of all might be this demented portrait of a dad and two kids seated at this dinner table while mom serves these ingrates with a crazed smile. Walls colored the most incongruous colors imaginable, visibly abutting and clashing with one another, weird furniture, and a window where you can watch the chefs in action further dot this landscape. These surreal touches extend even down to the presentation of your check, which is quite naturally brought to you on a Las Vegas tray depicting that city’s famous strip skyline at night, poker chips superimposed upon one of the corners.
But of course, nobody would really care about any of this if the food wasn’t awesome, and as would befit a restaurant that has been named “best breakfast in Columbus” on countless occasions, the Starliner never disappoints. Still, having been here enough times to notice a few key differences and catalog the patterns, I must say you would be slightly better off in choosing your spots wisely, attempting to drop in when this always popular landmark is maybe not quite so busy. Because it all comes down to potato crispiness.
Our last two visits, I must admit, while leaving satisfied overall with the experience – even the lengthy wait by now is an expected part and parcel of every meal here – something nagged at me after the fact, a disquiet I couldn’t initially identify. Eventually, I realized that what was slightly off about these recent Starliner excursions was that the potatoes were not quite as crispy as I’d grown to expect. And as the potatoes were a treasured centerpiece of many a breakfast on the menu, this was a central failing which might possibly serve to undermine the entire operation. Don’t get me wrong, these potatoes were not bad by any stretch of the imagination, it was only that the texture didn’t pop like it should. Furthermore, I concluded that the reason for this, most likely, was that the cooks were rushing the tickets slightly to accommodate these masses, who’d flooded the place in large part specifically for these potatoes.
History will someday document whether this shift in location proves beneficial to the Starliner or otherwise. But for now, I would like to go on record urging you to choose less busy hours for reasons that have nothing to do with wait time – and the cooks to slow down a little bit, because we’re not in that big of a hurry, and another thirty seconds for these potatoes might mean the world.