'This clock will never be stolen. Our employees are always watching it," reads a handmade paper sign above the chrome stools and vintage counter at Barney's Diner.
Beyond vinyl booths held together at the seams by strips of red duct tape, and windowsills full of wooden roosters, the imposing Martin Drake Power Plant commands attention from across the street. Plant workers in safety vests fill some seats during breakfast and lunch hours alongside pale hipsters, businessmen in ties, elderly couples and the nondescript. Most days, owner and waitress Kelly Zoerb bustles between customers, delivering modestly sized, mismatched plates of affordable diner fare.
But Barney's manages some twists on the typical. A particularly surprising one: All its beef products come from local, sustainability-minded producers Ranch Foods Direct, and the peppery, delicious sausage patties hail from Colorado Springs whole-hog processor Decker and Son Sausage Co. Since it's so rare to find local and socially conscious items on a diner menu, let alone one that tops out around $6, I'd expect a place to advertise in some way the fact that it goes (or rather, trims) that extra mile.
I tell Zoerb as much while digging into my largely satisfying plate of biscuits and gravy — the biscuits were a little dry — with the exceptional sausage and an egg ($5.60). Zoerb says that at one point, she did have some signage that randomly disappeared, and she plans to make note on her next menu printing. I get the sense that much of her clientele could care less, but I suspect a few new eaters might trickle in when near south downtown if they knew.
A second atypical feature of Barney's is that Zoerb is only 25 years old. Three years ago, she bought the business from her aunt, Joan Ward, who ran it for some 40 years, most of them at a location in what's now Motor City. (Ward's father first opened it in the mid-'60s, attached to a Phillips 66.) Zoerb says her aunt's first day at the current spot won't be forgotten: It was Sept. 11, 2001.
Thankfully, that turned out to be no ill omen for Barney's. One indication of its continued success: the monthly tradition of first-Wednesday fried chicken meals. Zoerb calls it a hellish day that can bring a line out of the building. She and her staff, including some family, begin prep and marinating their "Nebraskan recipe" two days prior and sell chicken plates ($6.35) with ample sides until they run out, often by midday.
Regardless of when you visit, pass the time with a cinnamon roll ($1.65) while you await your main order. My guest said it tasted just like her grandmother's, the ample, granular icing marrying well with sips of coffee. Her corned beef hash with two eggs and a muffin ($4.85) proved standard.
The same could be said for pretty much everything we ate on another visit: a buttery grilled cheese sandwich ($2.25); chicken-fried steak with not-too-heart-stopping gravy ($5.85); a serviceable burger with good, crispy fries ($4.80); peppery roast pork hunks with pleasantly lumpy mashed potatoes ($6); decent corn chowder and not-far-from-canned beef chili (both $2.20) ... you've probably eaten worse and better versions before, somewhere. Ditto on the apple pie ($2) and artificial-banana-flavored pudding ($1.85). Only with a surprisingly unique and tasty peach cream pie ($2) did Barney's food totally stand out.
But that's OK. If you're looking to be called "Hon" and score cheap diner fare, Barney's doesn't disappoint.