If anybody ever asked me for a list of the top 10 must-experience restaurants in Fort Wayne, of course Cindy's Diner would be near the top.
This little gem anchors the corner of Wayne and Harrison streets downtown and is beloved by many. The 1953 luncheonette owned by John and Cindy Scheele was moved to its present location in 1990.
Cindy's motto is "serving the world, 15 at a time" because that's all the seats the tiny diner holds, although they have added a few tables outside.
It's amazingly compact, and the kitchen seems to be mostly original, except for the addition of a microwave and a flat-screen TV.
When we walked in on a recent weekday for lunch owner John Scheele was holding a smiling 1-year-old boy behind the counter, who was munching on a doughnut. The little guy reached out and offered me a bite.
I smiled and declined.
A friendly waitress took our orders, and of course we each started with an iced doughnut, one cherry, one vanilla and one chocolate.
Cindy's has the doughnut machine that used to be at the Murphy's dime store that was just down the street. I polished off one of these soft, melt-in-your-mouth iced cake doughnuts in four, maybe five bites. It made me feel like I was 7 again.
My companions did the same. All I heard was a blissful "mmmmm."
Two of us ordered lunch, one opted for a sandwich. We were lucky to be seated right in front of the griddle, so we could watch Scheele work his mojo.
With the casual nonchalance of someone who has been doing something for years, Scheele simultaneously fried a thick slab of ham for my friend's sandwich, fried bacon, toasted bread, fried eggs and started cooking hash browns for the "garbage" my friend ordered. Garbage is a Cindy's Diner specialty: hash browns, ham, eggs and cheese all fried together.
He deftly grabbed the handle of the egg pan and with a flick of his wrist flipped the eggs over. No spatula required.
My friend said watching him was like watching a silent dance. Another observer said Scheele was like a finely tuned machine.
All our orders were ready at the same time and served piping hot, right from the griddle to the plate to the counter. No need for a heat lamp to keep food warm.
My bacon, eggs, hash browns and toast were standard diner fare, and fared well upon my inspection. My over-medium eggs were just as I liked, white on top but with a runny yoke in the middle, perfect for dipping toast into. The bacon was kind of a mangled mess, due to the fact that Scheele had smashed it down with a press. But who cares if it wasn't served in perfect strips? It was nice and crispy, with most of the fat cooked out -- just like I like it.
My friend let me have a couple bites of the garbage. It was nice and brown on top, with lots of melted cheese. It had a few too many onions for my taste, but not for hers. And I found out you can order garbage without any onions.
The sandwich and fries went down well with my other friend, too, who said she was glad they don't serve an overabundance of fries -- just enough to satisfy a lunchtime appetite.
Cindy's Diner has several things going for it that make it an out-of-the-ordinary dining experience. First, of course, is the uniqueness of the diner; it's such a retro blast from the past. It would be a great place to take any kid big enough to sit on a stool. They even have kiddie mugs to serve beverages in.
Secondly, the food is decent. It's not gourmet, but certainly passes the test for diner food.
Third, and maybe most important, is the literal and figurative sense of closeness there.
Literal as in you're physically close to your fellow diners, close to the servers, close to the cook, close to everything. If you have personal space issues, Cindy's Diner is not the place for you.
But if you like interacting with people, well, you'll likely find somebody to shoot the breeze with there -- a fellow diner, a server, maybe even a cook.
Maybe even a 1-year-old who's willing to share his doughnut with you.