"Sit down, loser." It's the first thing you hear walking into JT's Diner and the last thing new customers expect. They look around, surprised with a "Who, me?" expression on their faces. The regulars respond with a "yeah, yeah" and a wave of the hand as they take their usual seats at the 12-table diner.
The boisterous voice from behind the counter belongs to server and owner Tina Lallo, who probably couldn't whisper if she tried. "If I don't pick on you, I don't like you," explains Lallo, who also favors "dork" and "moron" as greetings. The good-natured insults are as ingrained in the JT's experience as $4 breakfasts.
"Everybody can joke around here," she says. "But you definitely have to have a sense of humor, that's for sure. I don't want any snobs coming in here."
Although the Willoughby spot has been a diner since the 1930s, JT's resembles a small ranch-style home from the inside out — single story with a garden out front and a tiny dining area inside the size of a living room. Lallo only has one rule when it comes to grabbing a bite at her place: "Eat and get the hell out of here," she says. "I kick people out on the weekends. They know it's not a coffee shop." As a friendly reminder, the back of Lallo's T-shirt screams the diner's slogan, "Eat and Get Out, Dork!"
"That's how my personality is," says Lallo, who bought the diner 10 years ago. It's the second time this location has been owned by her family and the second time Lallo has worked here. The first was as a waitress in her teens. Her mother also once waited tables here 28 years ago. Growing up, the self-proclaimed tomboy, who's always worked in restaurants, wanted to be a flight attendant. "I would have been so bored," she admits. "I'd have had to have my own airplane."
These days, the taste for the exotic comes through in the giraffe decor: pictures, stuffed animals, figurines and giraffe curtains above every window — a tribute to Lallo's favorite animal. Every item was a gift from a customer.
"Most of the customers here are like family," Lallo says, with a good-natured laugh. "Actually, I like my customers more than my family I think."
1125 Lost Nation Road, Willoughby, 440-975-8840, jtsdiner.com