Sometimes you see the train coming, speedy and white, rising as if from a tunnel to command your vision. Moments later, as you sit by the windows in Michael's Diner, the Rapid surprises you, sweeping in from behind — reminding you things can change at any time. But for now, you're sheltered from the squeaking rail-wheels and the chilly air, secure in a forest green booth with black and speckled silver stripes.
Michael's, more than anywhere else in Cleveland, evokes one element of diners' classic appeal: hospitality as a respite from travel. Its all-glass facade runs right along the Shaker Square Rapid station's westbound platform. The place even looks like a retro train-car diner on the inside: Counter stools and a single row of booths flank a narrow aisle. Behind the counter, gyro meat rotates slowly on a spit. A green neon tube stretches the length of the diner, glowing with reassurance.
"You don't feel tired working there because you're always relaxing by looking outside," says Michael Petrakis, the diner's owner and namesake.
"A square meal for a fare price," reads the art-deco-ish menu. The Rapid station has housed a diner since the 1950s. Sitting in a booth, it's easy to imagine table after table of Mad Men-era bachelors eating breakfast before commuting downtown on the train and coming back for hearty dinners at night.
Petrakis, an immigrant from Crete, leased the spot in 1996, drawn to the square because it reminded him of charming piazzas in Rome and Athens. He gutted and remodeled the place and got a rabbi, Catholic priest and Greek Orthodox bishop to bless its reopening. He also owns Michael's Family Restaurant in Rocky River. But the two menus are very different.
"A diner's a diner, and a restaurant's a restaurant," he explains. "A diner's got the good, big sandwiches, good milkshakes — you know how the old style was — and good breakfast."
Petrakis says kids love to sit in the booths with their parents and watch the trains come and go, especially in winter. "You're eating inside in a warm atmosphere," he says. "You see the snow falling down. It's beautiful."
What We Ordered: The open-faced gyros platter ($7.99): lots of gyro meat, with tomatoes, lettuce, big strips of feta cheese and fries.
13051 Shaker Blvd., Cleveland, 216-752-0052