With mid-priced and upscale restaurants dominating downtown dining at night, modest little cafés that take care of the breakfast, brunch and lunch crowds are welcome. Some are ramshackle and have locavore tendencies, some serve remarkable Italian coffee and pastries, and others offer pastrami and corned beef straight from New York.
Then there is the diner, unadorned and unassuming, serving unpretentious fare at rock-bottom prices.
One of the latest in that category is Della's Diner. Situated at what some have called the ill-fated intersection of Short and Upper streets, Della's is so immaculate and simply good that it might just breathe new life into that corner, where so many restaurants before have failed so quickly.
Della's also is efficient. If you're getting takeout, it will be ready in less than five minutes if things are slow; I know because I was on a meter and was watching the clock.
But if you plan to dine in, place your order at the counter, and then take a seat at one of the cute little tables covered with red plastic "tablecloths." Ambient music and sports television are both kept at sensible volumes, making this a great place for an informal business meal.
Breakfasts are straightforward. You will find that your scrambled eggs are really more like an omelet, and that the waffle is light and slightly underdone. I wished that, in spite of the price tag, genuine maple syrup were available. But I realize that that the real thing is rarely found in the diner environment anymore, just another pitiful triumph of corn syrup and fructose.
The bacon here is great: right in the sweet spot between crisp and overcooked, tender but not greasy. Equally perfect is the portion of two over-easy eggs, warm little pouches of runny yolks to be sopped up with biscuits that are light as a feather.
On the lunch menu, you will find bright-orange mac and cheese — tender macaroni, gooey with cheddar and the ideal amount of salt. Della's has a reasonable hand with salt in general, as evidenced also by the slightly smoky chicken salad sandwich and the green and red cabbage coleslaw with shredded carrots and a light creamy dressing, a hint of celery salt and a splash of vinegar.
The ordinary wheat bread, though, is an unfortunate minus, because sandwiches, no matter the setting, are largely about the bread.
Having said that, I would like to make one exception — for the grilled-cheese sandwich. This classic American version uses bread from a bag, which seems to be a fine way to get a really crisp, dark brown, buttery crust. Della's makes my favorite grilled cheese in downtown, in spite of the packaged products. Get it with pepper jack and pickles. Yum.
Then pair it with a cup of the homemade chili that is thick and tomato-pasty, not watery or soupy at all. It's almost creamy, with a lacing of cumin and a nice but manageable spicy kick at the end.
The homemade sweets give new meaning to the word "sweet." There is the cheesecake brownie with a cookie crust, the flavor of brown sugar and a cream cheese filling that has been cooked to the texture of a moist, dense brownie. It's very good, but it's a dessert portion sized for at least two people.
Della's is exactly what downtown needs more of in vulnerable economic times: a hearty meal for less than $6. You can even leave your debit card at home. But if you pay cash, bring a few quarters, because at this restaurant, there's only street parking, so while you are feeding yourself, you will need to feed the parking meters.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.