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SODA AND A BURGER CAN TASTE LIKE A TRIP HOME

When you happen upon Danny's All-American Diner - and everyone happens upon the small restaurant on Falkenburg Road north of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard - you're typically greeted by the sound of New Orleans jazz or Memphis blues.

Then the baseball memorabilia and an array of throwback sodas like orange Nehi and Royal Crown Cola catch your attention before you start salivating over the house special on the menu board: the Roberto Clemente burger served with sauteed onions and Swiss cheese on grilled Cuban bread.

Owners Danny and Gayle Doak opened their small slice of heaven in November 2005, and it quickly became a popular spot for folks who work in the Sabal Park area and deputies from the nearby Falkenburg Road Jail. Over a Clemente burger, I chatted with them about the diner.

Pull up a chair and join us. ERNEST: It sounds like the restaurant is a dream-come-true for you guys.

DANNY: This is what we've always talked about having, a place like this. My mom asked me the other day, "Do you ever not want to go in?" I said, "Never."

GAYLE: It's just something Dan and I just wanted to do. We didn't want anything big; we wanted something small. We like that we're cooking right in front of people so they can see how clean it is. And the people. We just like chatting with the people. You opened about a year and a half ago. How have things gone?

GAYLE: We opened in November, which was a good time to open because Florida is so seasonal. We were very pleased right through the winter, and then we hit summer and we didn't think we were going to make it through the first summer, but a lot of our regular customers kept saying, "You'll be okay; you'll be okay." This summer we've slowed up, too, but we're doing better than we did the first summer because we have regular customers. And you've drawn customers through word of mouth?

GAYLE: It's all word of mouth. There was a lady in Thursday or Friday with another woman and she said, ''Oh, my husband is a deputy, and he sent me here - the best burgers in town. It takes a long time to build a business from word of mouth; there's no doubt about that. But it's the best way to build it. Where did you get the baseball memorabilia?

DANNY: We hit the flea markets, but a lot of it is from people who come in the restaurant. A guy the other day had a Villanova shirt on, and he knew my great-great-grandfather started the burgers at a meat packing plant in Philly. He said, "I know you're a Phillies fan, and I was going to give this to my boss, but I know you'll appreciate it more." So now I've got a Ryan Howard bobblehead doll. Tell me about the music.

GAYLE: We like New Orleans jazz and blues. We do a lot of Chicago blues. A guy named Guitar Shorty is one of our favorites, and everybody asks when they come up, "Where did you get this?'' We haven't been able to buy it, but a customer brought it to us. When we play this everybody says, "Whose music is this?" Do the unique sodas like Nehi and Royal Crown draw customers?

GAYLE: Oh yeah. And we have people who come in and buy like 12 because they can't get soda like Cheerwine in this area.

DANNY: There's a gentleman named Ed who delivers them for us and he goes up to North Carolina where a lot of this stuff is made. Ed will tell you he's very sincere about his sodas. Some of the others are from out West, like Big Red; it's from Texas. And we have Sun Drop; it's the original Mountain Dew. So baseball, burgers, sodas and music give you an old-fashioned atmosphere?

DANNY: You don't see the places anymore that you feel comfortable in like the old neighborhood. We had a guy come in from Savannah, and he said this is the only place where you can get stuff like your mom used to make. It's not that we're fancy, we're just basic American.

GAYLE: If you come here in the wintertime, all these picnic tables out here are full. People just look for a place to come that's a little homey where they can get a good burger. And they always tell you these places don't exist any more. DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

Everything is made from scratch, including dessert specials like the bread pudding. They serve both breakfast and lunch, and Danny's burgers, a 19th century recipe from his great-great-grandfather, are so popular he's going to start serving them in the morning. The menu also includes deli sandwiches and salads for folks watching their waistline. Transplants find the sodas most appealing because it takes them back home: Moxie Sodas from New England, Bulldog Root Beer from California and Sioux City Sarsaparilla from the Midwest.

Lunch with Ernest is edited for brevity and clarity. Ernest Hooper can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3406.

IF YOU GO

Danny's All-American Diner & Dairy Bar

4406 N Falkenburg Road

Hours: Monday-Friday, 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.

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