Stephen Tanner Spends a Lot of Time at His Local Checkers

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“Yeah, man, it’s just Checkers all the way or deli cheeseburger, hot.”
“Yeah, man, it’s just Checkers all the way or deli cheeseburger, hot.” Photo: Melissa Hom

This summer, fried-chicken savant Stephen Tanner and his business partner Chris Young opened up El Cortez, their sorta-Mexican sequel to dive-y Williamsburg favorite the Commodore. Tanner is also a musician (he sometimes tours with his old band from Georgia, Harvey Milk), and he says he recently recorded a track for a soundtrack that has something to do with Southern California culture — though he’s not sure about the rest. No matter: This week, he agreed to subject himself to the Grub Street Diet, though it doesn’t sound like that changed his routine too much. In between dropping by his restaurants, playing guitar, and cooking for his girlfriend, Tanner managed to eat, well, a whole lot of Checkers.

Thursday, August 20
I don’t usually eat breakfast. I wish I could. When I do eat in the morning, it really does make the day better. But if you know people that are afraid to have hair of the dog, you know, someone that’s really hung-over, and the thought of a beer or a shot of liquor is horrifying to them. That’s not horrifying to me, but the idea of eating food early in the morning to me is just horrifying.

I make a pitcher of coffee every morning, leave it in the refrigerator, and just pour it over ice. I don’t give a shit what it tastes like or anything. I just want the caffeine. There’s no sugar, no anything. I don’t care if it’s Folgers or from the world’s most expensive bodega. I have that.

I do cook for my girlfriend, Andie, usually two or three times a day. She loves to sleep and eat in the morning, so I’ll make a monstrous breakfast and bring it into her when her eyes are barely open. It’s funny. That day it was an English muffin with butter and avocado, poached eggs, and hash browns. We have a griddle, and there’s a whole art to making hash browns. I go all out for her. And, believe or not, I had some cherry tomatoes that I just dressed with garlic, parsley, olive oil, and lemon. I put that on top, and that was her breakfast. I make her all this food, and there’s enough for me but I don’t want it. I usually eat something after it sits there for a half hour. Then I’m like, Oh, okay.

Honestly, I only really go eat once a day. I usually eat at Checkers, and usually before I go to bed I’ll get a King Kone. Coffee, Hornitos, cigarettes, and then usually around five or six p.m. I’ll get a cheeseburger and four-piece chicken tenders. I eat two chicken tenders in the restaurant, and put two on the cheeseburger, and I go walking.

Friday, August 21
That would be the same: Coffee in the morning, Checkers, and a King Kone later in the day. The Checkers where I live is pretty wild. It’s full of craziness, like being in the emergency room in Woodhull Hospital. So I hang out there a lot. I watch the news on this big TV, and I watch the crazy people and the teenagers that come in. I’ve developed a friendship with the guys that work there because, I’m telling you, I’m probably the only person that says, “Hi, how are you? Thank you very much.” They’re all Indian guys and they get treated like shit, but they’re really sweet. I go there so much, they actually smile when I come in. They get confused if I ever get something that’s not the usual thing, which is almost always the usual thing.

I stopped by Commodore and El Cortez at some point. I kinda go every day but, to be honest, lately I haven’t been doing shit. I’ve been pretty lazy. The places both got fully employed and I don’t really have a job anymore, it seems. It’s like, I used to do all the prep at Commodore Monday through Friday, but now they have other people doing that. The Commodore is pretty rough on a Friday night. It gets super-packed, and it’s usually packed with people that I don’t really want to be around. I don’t mean any offense to those people — it’s just not for me. That night I probably stayed at home with the dogs and played guitar, which is normally what I do. It’s my favorite thing to do.

Saturday, August 22
You know by now.

Sometimes I go to the McDonald’s next to the Checkers for breakfast ’cause Checkers doesn’t have breakfast, and McDonald’s does kind of have a ruling breakfast. I only eat there if I’ve been up all night, fucking partying, pedal to the metal, and I’m awake at 7:30 in the morning. Then I will definitely go there and get at least five hash browns. Those hash browns are a work of art, and it’s better than any goddamn potato I’ve had at any fancy restaurant.

The biscuits, too, I love. I don’t know what they put in them or how they make them, but those biscuits are better than anything I’ve ever made. They’re just salty, buttery, and perfect. They’re kind of like a homemade version of Pillsbury Grands or something, which, I love those. Back when me and Sarah [Sanneh] started Pies ’n’ Thighs, I wanted to serve Pillsbury biscuits, but she wanted to make biscuits, and she makes really good biscuits. So that was that.

I bought a can of those when I was making breakfast for my girlfriend and, um, I ate one of them with jelly and hot sauce. I just love the sound that the can makes when you bust it open: Whoosh!

The only thing that was different this weekend was that late Saturday night I took two hits of acid, so I didn’t eat Sunday or Monday. As I came down off that, I guess I forgot that stuff gets in your bones, so I just slept for a day and a half.

Sunday, August 23
Pretty much just slept. At night, Andie ordered some Thai food, and that didn’t end well. It was from somewhere in the neighborhood, starts with a C. It was pretty good, except we both got sick from it.

Monday, August 24
I didn’t have a cigarette or anything. I just went over to El Cortez and thought, What the fuck am I doing here? So I headed home and watched Trailer Park Boys and played guitar. But I hung out, took some shots of tequila before that. I go at night, yeah. The booze is free!

I cook for Andie. She likes steak. I usually get her a rib eye. I don’t know what’s better than a rib eye, you tell me. I don’t think there is anything. You can’t overseason one. You can coat it in salt and pepper and let it come to room temperature. I crank that griddle until it gets smoky, a little bit of oil, sear the steak on both sides. Andie’s gone to the store to buy steaks, but she’s kind of cheap. The rib eye is expensive, and she’ll come back with like, a club steak or a T-bone or something. I don’t know why the rib eye is the best, I really don’t know. Is it the part of the cow?

I don’t make anything fancy, it’s just whatever, but I’ll tell you what I don’t understand: What’s going on at grocery stores. A package of Oscar Mayer bacon is going for like $7, and in the same store you can get like two nice pork chops for $5. What’s the deal for the price of bacon? I don’t get it!

Tuesday, August 25
Our gas got shut off at some point, so I went to El Cortez. The kitchen is pretty square over there right now. None of them wanted to make the enchilada sauce, so they had me make it. I think they’re usually bogged down in other stuff, and they’ll kiss my ass and say, “Oh, I can’t make it the way you make it.” Which, of course, is just a nice way of saying, “I don’t want to make it.” It’s not hard to make it.

At some point I went to Checkers. You would think I’m shilling for Checkers, but it’s basically it for me. It’s right near my house, and the people that work there are really nice. This might sound silly, but I got food poisoning really bad once at a fancy restaurant, right around when I opened the first Pies ’n’ Thighs, and for a long time I only ate out of cans. I kind of feel like fast-food restaurants are similar. Like, you know, Checkers or McDonald’s, they can’t stay in business if they’re poisoning people. I know it sounds silly, but I feel really safe eating there.

I hung out there again, was there late. Shots of tequila. Nothing else. I can’t get a beer down to save my life. I used to drink tons of them. I can’t anymore. One day it just tasted disgusting.

Wednesday, August 26
I just had a croissant from a bodega, that was pretty good. I can’t pronounce it. A better name for any fancy bodega is Where White People Are No. 1. I’ve been to fancy restaurants to eat, and I enjoy it, but I don’t really care so much for eating. My girlfriend likes to go out. I go with her. She takes me to all kinds of places, but I usually don’t remember the names or whatever. Yeah, man, it’s just fucking Checkers all the way, or deli cheeseburgers, hot.

Oh, but I’ll tell you what. I’m going to an AC/DC concert tonight, and I’m getting a corn dog.

Stephen Tanner’s Grub Street Diet