No menu, no prices and no cash register

Posted: Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Rebecca Braun

Question: What Juneau eating establishment has no menu, no prices and no cash register?

Answer: Costa's Diner. If you missed this past weekend's grand opening, better get there soon, because Collette Costa plans to shut down her enterprise from Dec. 15 until after the new year.

After months of watching the "Costa's Diner" mural materialize in the hall of the Merchants Wharf, I'd heard she finally opened Saturday. When we walked in around 9 a.m. Sunday, Collette was puttering around and Tony Tengs, who is sharing his Chilkat Cones space with Collette, was attempting to install a window that opened to the hall. (He gave up shortly after.) Collette assured me she was open.

I was giddy with excitement. Not since the Channel Bowl Café closed has downtown had a place to eat a big sloppy breakfast and drink coffee from mismatched Salvation Army mugs with friends and neighbors you didn't arrange to meet.

I told Collette I'd been watching for signs of opening for months. Sheesh, it took forever, she said; if she had any idea how much work it would be she probably wouldn't have done it. "I haven't had a chance to think about the food yet," she added offhandedly. But she had the basic breakfast ingredients, including a vat of pancake batter and blueberries she picked last summer.

Collette is a self-described loudmouth you might know from her Folk Festival emcee-ing, her unexpectedly melodic and varied vocal performances, or any number of projects involving some combination of a stage, music, biting humor and bawdiness.

Diner maven is a perfect platform for big personalities. Fortunately for Juneau breakfast patrons, Collette also happens to know what she's doing in the kitchen.

She made me eggs over-medium as requested, a delicate feat that seems to elude most cooks. Soon after we arrived another family showed up and Collette made the 4-year-old a blueberry pancake the size of a large pizza, topped with a dollop of Tony's ice cream. I finished my meal, eyed that pancake, and ordered one for myself. That spurred my 3-year-old daughter, who apparently inherited my appetite, to order one too. We gorged ourselves until we realized our barstools were in demand.

I teased Collette that her place was destined to be a kid magnet. She said she'd have to get a few toys, then remembered her "I hate kids" persona and proposed to construct a ball pen and stick them all in it.

By the time we left some three hours later, the cramped quarters teemed with people eating and hanging around and, per Collette's request, explaining the drill to newcomers: rip a piece of paper from a roll of butcher block, write down what you want and give it to Collette. Serve yourself coffee and throw some money in the big copper pot on the counter - her grandfather's polenta pot, Collette says.

When another Juneau restaurant owner walked in and we told her the deal, her eyes bugged out. It's enough to make any self-respecting Chamber of Commerce member understandably apoplectic.

But Collette delights in defying convention, even if it costs her in money, time, or what some consider dignity. She's thinking about making a big Wheel-of-Fortune-style wheel that diners spin to determine the price of their meal.

Needless to say, I'm rooting for Collette. Little Switzerland might contribute more sales tax to the city, but what is the value of drawing the community out of the their homes to break bread together on a cold Sunday morning? What is the value of making people laugh? Of recycling the full-sized stained-glass doors from a Perseverance Theatre set to adorn your tiny diner?

Collette may well tire of the project when it becomes routine, or maybe her unconventional ideas will do her in. And that's OK. Change is inevitable and necessary and healthy, as long as it doesn't march in the singular direction of conformity and consolidation of ownership. I'm just glad to know we haven't let the McDonald'ses and Costcos snuff out the last vestiges of creative entrepreneurship in Juneau - and that there's a place to get a decent over-medium egg.

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