The Spinoff: One man’s thwarted attempt to spend 24 hours in a Denny’s

Originally published by The Spinoff

This week, Sam Brooks attempted something he’d been pitching The Spinoff for months: he’d spend 24 hours in a Denny’s and write about what happened. Unfortunately, Denny’s had other ideas.

I love a good writing stunt. I love to write up 7000 words on the convoluted story of a Japanese roleplaying game. I love to read a book about Cameron Slater in four hours and pull out the juiciest bits. I love to write live recaps of Dancing with the Stars, fingers tapping across the keys as quickly as a dancer’s feet fly across the floor.

A writing stunt speaks to the only two things I think I’m good at. One is writing, by which I mean the physical act of turning thoughts into words, regardless of the quality of those words (as my editors, friends and audiences will attest). The other is pushing myself beyond my personal place of comfort. I want to see what being uncomfortable does to my brain, how it changes me up, and ideally improves me.

So in the interest of marrying these two things, I pitched the idea of staying at a Denny’s for 24 hours to my editors.

This is the tale of me trying to do that and being cut off at the knees. Because I didn’t stay the full 24. Here is the story of what it’s like to spend 10 hours at Denny’s. Fourteen fewer hours than I wanted, and eight more hours than Denny’s would’ve liked me to spend there.

9am: I arrive at the Denny’s in Hobson St, downtown Auckland.

I have picked my outfit appropriately for the mission at hand. I don’t want to appear too conspicuous, but don’t want to be so dressed down that I look like I’m taking refuge. Considering that my wardrobe ranges between “Richie Richie but gay” and “suspicious widow”, this is a challenge. I settle on a pair of espadrilles, a linty green jumper, blue jeans and a woollen coat.

On the door are several signs, including a QR code that I dutifully scan. There are security camera photos of a few people who have decided to dine and dash, with the word “SHAME” written underneath them.

When I open the door, I’m hit by a smell that is recognisably, quintessentially Denny’s: a unique mixture of cooking oil and cleaning product. I want to turn back immediately.

Instead I hear myself saying, “Table for one, please.”

I think immediately about fronting up about my endeavour to the server, but I don’t. I get the feeling that I’m coming at the tail end of a boring shift. I will make my true alliances at the next shift. So I come at the pitch diagonally: “Are there any powerpoints? I’d like to work here for some time.” She points out two. I pick the one closest to the kitchen, which involves moving some baby chairs out of the way.

I settle into what will be my home for (hopefully) the next 24 hours.

9.05am: I order an item that I’ve been recommended several times: The budget breakfast. Two hash browns, two eggs, two pieces of toast. All for $8, which is inarguably good value. Alongside that I get a flat white and a glass of Coke.

9.11am: My order comes surprisingly quickly. The eggs, scrambled, are under-salted. I immediately salt, and assault, them. The hash browns, which a Denny’s regular has informed me have recently changed (they no longer import them from the US, apparently), are fine. The wholegrain toast, which I barely touch, is also fine.

The flat white is a coffee. The Coke is made with syrup.

9.16am: From where I’m sitting I can hear but not see the TV, which is tuned to TVNZ1. I hear Wanda Sykes’ voice, and I’m delighted to find out that she now has her own talkshow. (She doesn’t. She’s merely taking over Ellen’s role on The Ellen Show.)

9.47am: I still have not finished my meal, which is now cold. I’m a famously slow eater, who can turn the process of eating a bap into a half-day activity. I resolve to order food that does not need to be eaten at the temperature it’s served at.

10am: Wanda Sykes departs TVNZ1, and Tipping Point starts. It appears to be some form of televised British torture/game show with incomprehensible rules.

10.30am: The ice in my Coke has melted, the milk has done whatever undrunk milk does to a coffee. I have not eaten all my breakfast, but what I have eaten rests heavily in my stomach.

11am: The Chase starts. I can hear but not see it and learn that the reason why The Chase is not also a podcast is because it’s a very visual experience.

11.02am: I message my beloved colleague Alex Braae and ask if he is sure he wouldn’t want to write tomorrow’s Bulletin from a Hobson St Denny’s:

11.15am: I order the “passion fruit cheesecake”, because I feel like that’s a dish that could comfortably sit there for at least 45 minutes without substantially changing in taste or consistency.

11.22am: I am wrong.

The cheesecake comes, as every dessert on the Denny’s menu does, with a side of ice cream which most certainly will not keep its icy consistency for anywhere close to my 45 allotted minutes. Some amount of whipped cream and a glacé cherry fills out the plate.

Looking at it, I now understand what my editor means when she says, “This copy could be cleaner.”

11.25am: I watch the ice cream melt, and shove a few spoonfuls into my mouth. This cheesecake is one of the worst things I’ve spent $8.50 on. The consistency is like cream cheese that has been put in the freezer, and the glaze has no discernible taste except for the streaks of white chocolate icing on top of it.

12.01pm: The Chase is over. 1 News at Midday, hosted by Chris Chang, rings out across the restaurant. I stare at the building Chris Chang is broadcasting from, because it is across the road from my seat. I wish him well as I continue to slice bits of my “passion fruit cheesecake” which could not be further away from those three words if it tried.

12.06pm: I consider what my future lunch will be. The most expensive item on the menu is the Sizzling Surf ‘n’ Turf. The description for this one reads: “350 gram T-Bone steak (pre-cooked weight) with prawns, asparagus & seasoned potato cubes. Served on a hot plate.”

It is $36. I will not be ordering it.

The cheapest item on the menu? A ramekin of sauce for $1.50. Sauces include aioli, ranch, hollandaise, BBQ and brown gravy. Sauce can also be purchased in “monkey bowls” for $3. I have never heard of either of these vessels.

12.11pm: A man with a Topp Twin haircut sits on the other side of the restaurant. He orders water. It has not occurred to me over the past three hours that I could order water at Denny’s. I am maybe not the picture of health.

12.53pm: People start finding places at tables. I count more than five, less than 15. This is maybe not quite a lunch rush but a lunch stroll.

1.03pm: The staff change the TV station to one that plays music. The first song is that Olivia Rodrigo song that sounds like Paramore. No, the other one.

1.05pm: I order onion rings. It’s super hard to mess up onion rings, and I’ve never hated an overcooked onion ring.

1.15pm: My onion rings arrive, with a small pottle of sweet chilli sauce (my favourite condiment) and a sprig of parsley that seems to come with every non-breakfast item on the menu. I tear into the first one, and dip the remainder into the sweet chilli. They’re delightfully crispy, with the exact right amount of salt. No assault will happen here.

1.38pm: I finish the onion rings, the only meal I have completed since my arrival. “Closer” by The Chainsmokers (feat. Halsey) plays.

1.40pm: The waiter comes and picks up my dish. I think now they’re starting to get suspicious. I have been here for nearly five hours. Nineteen more hours lay ahead of me.

1.53pm: I peruse the menu, not for the first time and definitely not for the last time. I notice that the sky-comma in Denny’s is a kiwi! Cute.

I peruse the menu again, looking for treats.

The dish I am most looking forward to is Sweet Chilli Cauliflower. The description reads thusly: “Packed with flavour, deep fried cauliflower bites tossed with sweet chilli sauce and served with sour cream.”

2.03pm: I read the wall behind me, carefully because I have many hours in which to do it. It lists various milestones in the history of Denny’s.

The history of the restaurant is actually a super interesting one: Harold Butler and partner Richard Jezak opened “Danny’s Donuts” in Southern California in the 1950s. What started out as just a donut shop turned into being a donut store that also sold hamburgers, after Butler bought a grill. As the car culture grew and more people started using the freeway, Butler kept his restaurant open for 24 hours a day.

Butler changed the name from Danny’s to Denny’s, and by the late 60s, over 500 restaurants were open across the United States. They now operate more than 1700 restaurants worldwide, seven of which are in New Zealand. (Auckland has five of these, with only two being permanently 24 hours a day, while the other two are in Porirua and Christchurch.)

The last five years of achievements on the wall read grimly. 2012? Roast dinners, introduced. 2013? A Hobbit menu, which spread around the world. 2014? Pizza! 2015 is the last achievement on the wall, celebrating the franchise’s 25th year in New Zealand.

2.44pm: A server kindly informs me that I can just order the coffee refill – rather than multiple long blacks. Having had three coffees, I take him up on this kind offer. Have I made an ally?

3.02pm: I have now had five coffees. I may have made an external ally, but I am Judas to myself.

3.15pm: I find it interesting to note that, despite pancakes being the most famous part of the Denny’s menu, even being the cover model dish on the menu, there are only six menu items that include pancakes: Grand Slam, Senior Slam (same as Grand Slam but for old people), Junior Grand Slam (vice versa), Bacon Banana Pancakes, Pancake Stack and Pancake a la Mode.

I look forward to having one of these items before I leave at 9am.

3.30pm: The same Olivia Rodrigo song plays. It’s pretty good!

3.37pm: I turn my attention to the drinks menu. I think I’ll have a glass of sparkling wine, with dinner, as a treat.

The wine list at Denny’s is surprisingly robust, as is the beer list. However, where the drinks list gets squint-worthy is the cocktail section. By which I mean: the Boozy Milk shake [sic] section. It consists of three items: Chocolate Bourbon Milk shake [sic], Oreo Bourbon Milk shake [sic], Lime Bourbon Milk shake [disgusting].

I resolve to order one of these before they stop selling alcohol, as a punishment.

3.46pm: I have not seen a member of staff in 20 minutes. I am cold. Perhaps these things are related. Perhaps they have abandoned the store to me. I am the Phantom of Denny’s.

4.23pm: The same Olivia Rodrigo song plays for a third time.

4.35pm: I order the garlic bread, and another Coke. I decide to lay off the coffee for the time being, having now had close to eight in as many hours.

4.42pm: The garlic bread arrives. It’s genuinely delightful! Crispy where it should be crispy, butter soaking all the way through to the soft outside.

4.55pm: I have eaten two large pieces of garlic bread very quickly and now I feel ill.

5pm: I am a third of the way through my projected stay here. I realise I’ve spent all but maybe five minutes of the past eight hours sitting down.

5.24pm: A family enters. I narrow my eyes: one of these children will get to eat for free, under the Denny’s bylaws. (An adult can eat free on their birthday with one full paying adult, kids under 10 eat free with a full paying adult from Monday to Wednesday, seniors get a two-for-one deal on Tuesday in Christchurch.)

5.34pm: In my entire eight and a half hours, I’ve seen maybe 35 people total. I wonder how this place stays in business.

5.50pm: A friend arrives for a pre-show meal. I am very happy!

Her order is more “Denny’s” and therefore better than anything I’ve ordered thus far, similar versions of which could be purchased at any number of places. She orders a veggie burger with an upgrade to curly fries (our server finds this more delightful than any server all day has found anything I have to say), a no-sugar Coke and a sundae.

We gossip.

6pm: The veggie burger arrives. My friend seems to enjoy it. At one point while eating it, she pulls out an onion slice that is more substantial than anything that was inside my six onion rings. She ascertains, correctly, that her burger patty was probably dropped in oil. She doesn’t particularly enjoy it, but she finishes, making it the day’s most satisfying meal so far.

We continue to gossip. The restaurant slowly starts to fill out.

6.30pm: My friend leaves, and I return to my planning and perusing. Another friend is due in a couple of hours. He’s excited to order the budget breakfast with a pancake stack. I’m excited to have company, frankly.

6.47pm: I’m not usually one to quote Anne Carson, because I’m not a total wanker, but this quote feels apt for the situation: “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.”

It is here that my journey comes to a premature end.

A manager, who has recently descended onto the floor, comes over and asks me to leave. I have been there too long (completely right by normal standards, deeply wrong by my own). She says I’ve been there since 8.30am. I correct her and say that I have actually been there since 9am. That half hour less does not endear me to her. I explain that I’ll keep ordering and gesture to the uncleared plates around me, some of which have been there for several hours.

No dice.

I explain that I can leave my card and my ID (learner’s licence, expired) with them. I will absolutely pay out my tab, a grand total of $60.70. She explains that people aren’t allowed to stay longer than two hours.

No dice.

I explain that I’m writing a story for probably the only website that will let their journalists do something like this (I leave that second part out). She points out that people aren’t allowed to use the powerpoints with a tone that says, not unfairly, you’re lucky to have been here this long.

No dice.

I am to leave the diner, my mission unfulfilled. I pack up my stuff sadly. I walk past families enjoying their sizzling plates, soda syrup and curly fries. I go up to the counter and pay. A worker, the same one who was delighted when my friend upgraded, says, “You’ve been here a long time.”

Not nearly long enough. I didn’t even get to have dinner.

In a way, I achieved what I set out to do: I typed many, many words I wouldn’t have written sitting at my desk. I sat in a restaurant I don’t especially love for nearly 10 hours. It’s changed my brain a bit: Now I know I can do this, a thing nobody but me asked for. And while I love a stunt, I don’t love them enough to make a hospo worker’s shift harder or weirder than it needs to be.

Like most stunts, though, it’s hard to know who this one is for: the audience, who sit, watch and clap? Or is it for the stuntman, who gets to be applauded for doing something nobody else wants to do?

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