Where to grab a bite in Boston at three in the morning? It’s a conundrum that plagues club-goers, college students and hungry Hub-dwellers all over town. There’s really only one spot that Bostonians from all walks of life can claim as a their greasy spoon mecca: Boston’s only 24-hour restaurant, the South Street Diner.
A short film that debuted Saturday at IFF Boston, “24 Hours At The South Street Diner,” tells the story of this 65-year-old Leather District landmark, painting a brightly colored portrait of a thriving community space with character to spare. The diner draws regulars and first-timers of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds around the clock, serving up classic American diner fare from sizzling cheeseburgers and fries to chocolate chip pancakes and milkshakes in old-fashioned soda fountain glasses, plus beer in bottles and on tap, wine and mimosas until 1 a.m.
But the food is secondary to the soul of the place itself. Owner Sol Sidell says in the film that the diner’s celebrity outshines that of any one person who’s ever paid it a visit (and those people include rock bands, film stars and athletes). Preserved by the devotion of its community, the eatery that began in 1947 as the Blue Diner has survived fire, near-bankruptcy, changes in ownership and threats to its all-night hours to become the pastiche of Boston culture it is today.
In the daytime, tourists, cabbies, cops, construction workers and locals of all shapes and sizes fill the diner’s bar stools and booths. In the evenings after the clubs let out, or when shift workers come looking for a meal, the line for a table stretches down the block. Under the bright blue, red and pink of the nighttime lighting, strangers sit together swapping stories and regulars and servers treat newcomers like family. The film captures one of the most vibrantly diverse and cheerful scenes to be found anywhere in Boston, day or night.
In the film, a regular known as Chris the Cabbie sings the diner’s praises over a late-night cup of coffee at the bar, voice raised over the clatter of silverware, and the din of talk and laughter. He says he thinks the diner is the only place around where anyone — drag queens, businessmen, twenty-somethings, the rich, poor, black and white — can be themselves over some good old-fashioned comfort food. In a city often demarcated by class, race and history, that’s no small victory.
“No matter who you are,” Chris the Cabbie says, “everybody has the right to a burger at three in the morning.”
“24 Hours At The South Street Diner” has a second screening Monday at 6:30 at the Somerville Theatre. Listen to Radio Boston’s interview with directors Tom and Melissa Dowler and diner owner Sol Sidell here.