Autumn: the season where it’s humid enough to cause a bead a sweat to trickle down from the corners of your hairline but cold enough to make you wish you had a jacket when the chill sets in. Small yellow and brown leaves litter the sidewalks—they’re always the first to find their way to the ground when the wind starts to blow. If you’re lucky, you might catch a flash of red. If you’re not, it’s the gum that a student left behind on their way to career days.
Wafting between Halloween-decorated storefronts is the smell of onion powder and marinara sauce. Mixed with these scents, and not as aromatically pleasing, is the smell of exhaust from the streets running in opposite directions just below campus. It’s a home football game weekend. Families stop on the street to take pictures outside their most memorable landmarks, while a child nudges her mom toward something that catches her eye. It’s lunchtime, and it seems that everyone is trying to ignore the hunger rumbling inside of them. For those that lose, there are countless restaurants offering “local harvest vegetables” for the out-of-towners. For these restaurants, there’s something else in the air besides an autumn chill: they’re gearing up for game day.
To the passerby, Herwig’s doesn’t seem to be open. It’s only after you tug on the heavy metal door that you realize that they’re already frying sausage. It’s bound to be sausage—the various pig figurines, plaques, and bobble-heads hold the promise of bacon and all things pork. Bernd Brandstatter, owner and current cash register operator, stands beside an old-timey radio. “Whatdya wanna hear, darlin’?” he asks, before switching to something upbeat with an Eastern-European, folksy charm. Bernd wears a worn, faded red bandana over his unkempt strawberry blonde hair, and if you squint your eyes, it looks almost as if the bandana morphs into his wild beard, streaked with hints of orange and red. “Ya know, we get a lot of foot traffic in here on football weekends,” he starts, just before spotting a regular coming in the back door. “Don can wait,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye that reveals a wiser charm. “The alumni make their way in here for the cheapskate special. We’re the only Austrian restaurant in town, and they know where to come for an authentic meal.” The sizzling meat on the pan interrupts, as if on cue, and he directs his next question across the counter. “The lady won’t stay for a bite to eat?”
The Diner just down the street has a different feel with its aluminum walls, counters, and chairs. Everything has recently been wiped down for the lunch hour, but it’s hard not to notice the wear and tear that 85 years and thousands of “stickies” take on a place. Asia Butler holds a tray of plastic Pepsi glasses in one hand, rag in the other, as she recounts her shifts as a waitress at the famous 24-hour diner on campus. “You know, a weekend doesn’t go by without the ‘We Are’ chants, but that’s all friendly rowdiness,” she says. “Even the people from other teams—it’s just a happy environment.” A man much taller and more weathered comes into view. Whatta ‘bout you, Bryan? You work the overnights.” Bryan chuckles, seemingly disinterested in the conversation just enough to draw his listeners in, one or two in tables just a few feet from the front. “You just gotta be here on one of those shifts.” He steps out to clean the front window, and Asia picks up where he left off. “Guys come in here with their smart comments sometimes—but I never feel threatened,” she adds, almost as an afterthought. The door clangs open again, and Bryan returns to finish what he started. “Naked in the bathrooms—naked in the restaurant, too. Just butt naked everywhere, every weekend.” He heads back into the kitchen as Asia returns her glance slowly to the front of the room. “Is that all you needed?” she asks, clearing her throat.
The Corner room’s small-square tiled floor is a bustling backdrop to the blue-leather booths that line the front of the restaurant. There are two hostesses juggling menus and crayons, and one woman is requesting a location change. Lost in a thought that’s interrupted with a polite—but curt—“Can I help you?”, you notice a woman stepping out from behind a wall to the left of the door. She disappears to retrieve the manager, adhering to an ambiguous policy prohibiting conversation with journalists. John Briggs appears as quickly as she disappeared, footwork lost in the hustle and bustle of the traffic coming in and out of the kitchen. “It’s pretty standard to have a 45 minute wait on game day,” he assures, looking anything but assured in a booth with a view of the restaurant. “We don’t get a lot of locals, though. It’s mostly out-of-towners and their families—which is okay—good,” he adds, sensing the gaze of a client in the booth behind him. “Not a lot of students though. We don’t have TV’s, so the radio feed keeps the customers updated on the score.” He senses the din in the background, which has grown only slightly, but clarifies that the radio isn’t the best option for game day. “We’re a family restaurant, so we have a different kind of feel here. Go to Pickle’s or Zeno’s and you’ll get different answers.” He sits back, then forward again, straighter, to signify the end of the conversation.
You can smell Mama Mia’s before it comes into view. Tucked into a row of storefronts displaying this season’s leather Clarks or next season’s Uggs, the restaurant boasts nothing. Just one table deep on either side of the space, the humble restaurant seats 20 people maximum. At the front of the store, a woman stands behind the counter while her male coworker is in an animated conversation with another alum. The server turns out to be Carla Panetta, co-owner and occasional bouncer for the pizza joint. This year hasn’t seen much need for one, though, which is why they decided to forgo a doorman. “We’re usually open until 3a.m., but we don’t have enough people working this semester,” Carla sighs, but it’s a long day’s work kind of expression, one that she’s equally proud of and exhausted by. “So I’ve seen a lot of game day restaurant buzz around here, but not a whole lot of actual games.” When the students come strolling in after dark, though, she has an atmosphere of her own to look forward to. “It’s a happy-drunk kind of place,” she says, smiling. “That’s the kind of excitement we want. Then I don’t have to toss anyone out.” She laughs at her own joke, and by way of a punch line, shows her small stature. She searches for a business card and points to her email address. “Send them my way if you know anyone looking for work,” she says, before returning to her spot in front of the register.
The restaurant fades out of view, lost to a massive stadium that casts only a small shadow over street-life in downtown State College.
Fall 2014/Third Year of College