Serving up specials

Sunday, May 30, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:48 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

It’s a typical late spring day — the sun is shining, it is warming up — and people from different walks of Centralia life stop for lunch at the Allen Street Diner.

The diner is divided more or less in half. On one side, four men in button-down shirts with cell phones clipped to their belt loops finish their meal at one of the 10 tables. Their plates, atop a pink plastic tablecloth, are mostly empty as they take their last sips of soda. Off to one side is a heavy glass ashtray and vase of fake roses that match the tablecloth.

On the other side, two men in dirt-caked blue work clothes sit on opposite sides of a table, silently browsing menus that slightly stick together from use and humidity. Toward the back, an older couple lingers over drink refills.

Waitress and co-owner Mary Johannsen navigates among the tables, her gait distinctive and solid, carrying plastic cups of fountain soda. Mary asks the guys in the button-down shirts how their lunch was, then pauses at the workmen’s table to take their order. She listens, and then writes it down later for the cook — her husband, Albert.

Albert, who has been sitting with relatives in from out of town, rises and disappears into the kitchen to start fixing chicken-fried steak, the most popular item on their menu. When he’s done, Mary — with shoulder-length dark blond hair and bangs, robin’s egg-blue eye shadow and rose-pink lipstick — rushes the plates to the workmen.

Lunch, again, is served.

It has been two years and four months since the Johannsens opened their diner on Allen Street in downtown Centralia. Married for 35 years, Albert worked as a roofer while Mary waitressed in other restaurants until they decided they would rather work for themselves.

Although they live in Sturgeon, about nine miles away, the Johannsens opened their restaurant in Centralia because it was easier to find a place; they took over the former BJ’s.

One of the biggest challenges in opening the diner was finding a stable cook. After two unsuccessful tries, Albert decided that he better learn how to do it himself. Now, with more than two years of cooking behind him, he has developed a high opinion of his skills. Without a hint of modesty, he talks about one customer — a trucker who drives through 32 states — who claims Albert makes the best hamburgers.

“It’s just the pride in my own self-cooking,” he said. “If you have no pride, then you’re sloppin’ hogs. We’re not sloppin’ hogs — we’re feeding people.”

For her part, Mary claims their diner has about 150 regulars who stop in for the daily specials such as the meatloaf or the hot roast beef sandwiches (gravy on top). Verda Adkisson, who lived in Centralia for 30 years and still vists regularly, said she often eats at the Allen’s Street Diner because she likes the food and the atmosphere.

“I think this place has the hometown feeling,” Adkisson said, “and the food is good.”

On this recent Wednesday, Adkisson is eating with her mother-in-law, Helen Adkisson — who has lived in Centralia even longer than Verda, since 1941. Their table is out of the bright path of the sun, which streams through the front windows and catches in the fake plastic dewdrops on the table roses.

The Johannsens typically arrive about 6:30 a.m. to prep for the day on weekends and about 8 a.m. on weekdays. They don’t leave until about 9 p.m., when the dishes are done and the pink tablecloths are wiped clean. They are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Although Albert has a kitchen helper and Mary has waitressing help on the weekends, the bulk of the work falls on her and her husband.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but I guess everything is,” she said. “It’s better than working for someone else.”

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