Eighty-Six the Onions (and other diner shorthand they might not know)

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A server would mark a slash on a ticket, but speak in lingo. For example: 1 CB, 86 the onions!

I love the traditional diner. I also grew up old school—even in the ’80s I worked at a small-town “real” diner as a cook. You know, where the waitresses jot down orders on tickets, which then get clipped to a rail or spindle? And it was all in shorthand. As a cook, you had to pick up on the lingo pretty quick, lest the waitress stand there, tapping her toes, and tell you with a simple look in her eyes, “You screwed up again”. In those days, a mistake rarely reached the diner’s table. The server was the last line of defense and would double check the ticket against the plate to set in the pick-up window. You see, it wasn’t the cook’s fault if your burger came out with mayo instead of ketchup—it was hers because she didn’t catch it on her way out of the kitchen. And she’d tell you so, too.

Shorthands (or, codes) were used to simplify everything. While the codes might vary from business to business, they were consistent within. A burger ordered up with the notation of XMLTPO told me the diner wanted mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion.

Let’s not confuse shorthands with lingo. Phrases were often spoken out to a cook, not written. 

A great deal of lingo, though, was uniform across the country, including the ever-popular “86”, which means to “nix” or “cut off”.

There are many theories as to why this particular number was chosen. Some resources say it simply rhymes with “nix”, while others talk about Chumley’s, an old New York speakeasy, which was located at 86 Bedford Street. (During Prohibition customers would use a doorway through an adjoining courtyard. Cops on the bar’s payroll would ring up Chumley’s to advise of a raid, and the bartender would shout out, “86 everybody”. The customers would quickly exit out of the Bedford entrance to avoid the cops coming through via the courtyard.)

All theories aside, the streamlining of restaurant lingo meant for better, more accurate service, especially during rush-rush breakfast and lunch hours.

By the way, 86 was also used to “cut off” or “ban” someone. For example, a bartender might 86 someone whom has had too much to drink. A cook might also tell servers to 86 the night’s special, meaning to take it off the menu board.

Some other popular numbers and what they meant:

21: Limeade

41: Lemonade

50-50: Coffee with half-and-half

51: Hot Chocolate

77: Seven Up with ice cream (vanilla)

81: Water

The real question is, how many servers these days will know what any of these numbers mean? I always say “86” when there’s something I don’t want. Admittedly, I’m curious to see how many know what I mean. And I’m always thrilled when that one, lone youngster is actually intrigued by my response.

Do you remember hearing servers and cooks use numbers as “code”? Have any others to share?


Last updated: Jan 30, 2014
Filed under: Diners, Retro Memories Tagged with: diners, retro sayings