There are problems at The Dive, a small, revamped diner on the side of a cresting North 31st Street in the former home of Vietnamese Garden, but the black swivel chairs in front of black tables — perfect for semi-sauced pirouettes — aren't one of them. It's not the smoker out front turning hickory, cherry and apple wood into a fairly tender half-rack of baby-back ribs ($9.95). (The house sauce is a muddy-red Kansas City style; tangy, like it used to be at Giuseppe's Old Depot Restaurant.) And it's sure as hell not owner Dominick Scola, an attentive host with an eye for service details and a penchant for dad jokes, who one night offered up the last piece of chocolate cake to a boisterous dining room.
But more often than not it was a lack of vision in the kitchen that hurt our food; mainly our burgers. For it's burgers made of beef from Ranch Foods Direct that are the big deal at The Dive. Of course, you can definitely do breakfast with your bottomless, 59-cent coffee, but we didn't venture too far down the road of omelets and eggs, other than to confirm that the French toast ($4.95) was, indeed, très délicieux, not to mention available on sourdough, raisin or buttermilk bread. Other diner dabbling yielded watery coleslaw, tasting like NutraSweet and black pepper; amazing, smoky, brisket-laced baked beans; and a good red chili over woeful french fries ($5.99).
So, with a nod to the ground beef, we present a few commandments of the craft:
Thou shalt blaze to the beseeched degree. It is a truth universally acknowledged that you either like your beef bloody, or you're wrong. Those who are, take heart: Every burger we ordered at The Dive was overcooked, regardless of the level requested. The only one that wasn't was the charbroiled breast in the chicken club ($8.49), and it had a pinker sheen to it than others might like. (Of course, I ate it anyway — throw Swiss cheese, thick bacon and thin avocado slices at me and I'll eat them off the ground. It just lacked some zip, like mayonnaise.) And though nicely edged with charred fatty bits, a sizzling, crosshatched strip-steak ($11.95) was also over-browned, not to mention quite the jaw workout.
Practice piety with menu variety. When it comes to creativity, by and large, the restaurant's doing it right, if not always as well as it should. There's the Dive Suicide Burger ($8.49), a horrifyingly spicy option featuring dark-orange "secret sauce" dripping off a patty made, and topped with, both sliced habanero and jalapeño peppers. The first taste to hit my tongue was onion bun, then my synapses started spazzing, sweat broke out and my head swam. This thing is ghost-chile hot, and literally inedible by us, but that's not to say you won't dig it.
The Dive Burger ($7.99) held up best, itself a mix of provolone, bacon, grilled onions, roasted red bell-peppers offering a welcome sweetness, and a garlic-herb mayo that we couldn't taste. Elsewhere, the Hawaiian Burger ($8.49), with pineapple, Swiss and a thick "hickory smoked ham" steak, seemed a great idea, but the mix of savory and sweet never found a home: The half-inch-thick ham was big, but bland, and the grilled pineapple nearly tasteless.
Lastly, there came the Big Kahuna: the Beast Burger ($14.95), three patties equaling a pound-and-a-half of beef, 10 strips of curly bacon, six pieces of cheese melting down the meat's curves, mushrooms and green chilies, all on a five-inch bun. Eating it, including fries, gets your name on the wall (not to mention an appointment with a cardiologist). Think: salty, hard-to-eat and absurdly over the top.
Fry fries long enough to get the good stuff. Considering how frequently I run across them, there's obviously a certain subset of the population that prefers their french fries soft, tangled and oil-logged; if that's you, The Dive's hand-cut potatoes are as described. They don't do much underneath red chili either, where it all becomes a little sodden.
But overall, despite shortcomings in said sampled snacks, The Dive — with its neighborhood vibe, noted effort and possibility for redemption — is still a worthwhile little addition to the west side; especially if it ever does open around the clock, as Scola mentioned as a possibility in an earlier interview with the Indy.