Diner feeds legal system

A line of customers curls around the stools next to the cash register, chatting as they wait to pay.

Kelly Greenlea, a 24-year-old UTC graduate student, takes their money as James Porter, perpetually 27, slaps ground beef and buns on the open grill.

Around the corner in a red booth inside the Cherry Street Diner, Hamilton County Courts Officer Morris Bice praises the eatery between bites of his cheeseburger.

"This is the best the food's been here ever," Bice says.

And he should know. A courts officer since the early 1990s, he's seen the spot a block from his workplace undergo several identity changes. The most recent was almost two years ago, when it reopened as a diner under its current owner, Tony Klein.

The spot at the corner of Seventh and Cherry was seemingly fated to house a restaurant - it was where the original Krystal hamburger restaurant opened in 1932.

These days, the Cherry Street Diner attracts not only the courts regulars - judges, cops, clerks and lawyers - but also bleary-eyed jurors heading to duty in the early morning and defendants fortifying themselves with coffee before heading to hearings.

On a recent Wednesday, two customers walked in out of the rain during the lunch rush.

"You got any pork chops left?" a baseball-cap-clad man asks Porter.

"One left," he replies. "Y'all can split it."

"We'll flip for it," the man says.

Diners treat pan-fried pork chop Wednesday seriously.

A sandwich board outside the restaurant and a marker board inside advertise the daily specials with meat and two or three veggies: "mac and cheese, veggie soup, blackeye peas, coleslaw, fried okra, broc cass, fried apples."

For Klein, taking over the diner meant a pay cut from his previous position managing food services for chain restaurants. But he has fallen in love with the job.

Mostly, he says, it's the people.

Early on a recent morning, an older man in jeans with a Coke can in the front pocket of his red-plaid work shirt walked in to pick up a hot biscuit to go.

"How's your morning?" Tony asks.

"If I was any better you couldn't stand me," he replies. "I've been sitting on both hands to keep from waving at everybody."

As he waits for his breakfast, the customer catches up Tony on his son's progress in the military.

Klein's seen some odd things, too.

Two weeks ago, a witness in a recent vehicular homicide trial sat two stools down along the counter from a victim's family member.

Klein recalled a morning when a man, so drunk he could hardly stand up straight, ordered nothing but coffee and breath mints, telling Klein he had to be in court.

"What for?" Klein asked.

"Public intoxication," the man told him.

One of Klein's goals has been to make the diner a personal place. Being 100 steps from the city-county courts building means friendly faces bring repeat business, he says.

It doesn't hurt that the floors above the diner house private attorneys' offices and the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office.

A back booth transforms into a temporary office for five women from the defender's office.

Though the talk is more about what side order they'll have with lunch, work weaves its way into the conversation.

More than six decades of combined experience translates into a food-work-food shorthand conversation as Public Defender Ardena Garth and some of her legal staff congregate.

Opposite Garth, her chief assistant, 22-year veteran Karla Gothard, evaluates how well Klein's done with the place.

"They got to know people pretty quick," she says as one of the office's investigators interrupts with a question.

Without pause, Gothard says from memory, "No it's not on the fourth, it's on the 11th." The investigator jots a quick note on her legal pad and walks out of the restaurant, back upstairs to the office.

The women advise not to pass up the glassed-in dessert shelves next to the cash register. Trays of oatmeal-raisin cookies, white-frosted cupcakes and Double Doozies - a cream-filled cookie sandwich - beckon patrons as they pay.

Two booths away, employees of the Chancery Court clerk's office finish their lunch while across the floor, an attorney reviews notes with her client.

Bice sizes up the scene.

"You've got it all down here. Everybody shows up from the criminals to the judges," he said.