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Our Favorite Diners in New
and Upstate New York
A freshly brewed cup of coffee, delicious home-style cooking and service with an attitude await you at these legendary landmarks
The Deluxe Town Diner has the classic neon and counter look of a townie diner with the menu of a restaurant that offers everything from basic and traditional to upscale and healthy (photo by Eric H.)
by Eric H.
No matter how many dining bells and whistles come our way, there's still no better place to be than a good old American diner.
Diners are a true icon of Americana from the great burgers and lime rickeys to the delicious homemade apple pies. While not the most handsome lot of restaurants, diners are nevertheless attractive to many who believe beauty is in the eye of the beholder in regards to history, preservation and just serving darn good food.
Perhaps the best example of a reality show, diners come across as a place where your mom and grandmother could be working. They know their recipes like the back of their hand, strongly encourage you to eat large portions of their good food, and work hard everyday, many times more than 12 hours to keep you satisfied.
No one knows that better than Joanne Welch, manager of the 1950s-style chrome Tilt'n Diner in Tilton, NH, as she watches her staff serve delicious homemade food to about 100,000 people from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Welch says "it's a great place to work," where the staff "has a lot of fun at their jobs." The Tilt'n Diner, like so many other diners, works hard to meet its ultimate mission -- to serve the best food possible.
"We prepare our food fresh daily," says Welch. "It's the kind of food mother used to make."
The wait staff makes a diner special, too -- they seem to know your name even though never having met you before. Without knowing names, they have a way of calling you friend, however. The women waiters may call you "honey" and the men owners just might call you "captain" or "chief," but that's just a traditional formality to keep things informal at these homey businesses.
Diners started in New England in the form of street lunch wagons in the late 1800s, eventually transforming into manufactured dining cars and then converted trolleys and train cars. Each ensuing decade brought their own touch to the diner from the formica and Naugahyde look of post World War II to the stainless steel facade in the 1950s. Despite fast food restaurants nearly wiping out the diners in the 1960s, the diner industry rebounded prominently in the 1970s with savvy diner builders creating new diners with an "old look." This smart move saved the diner from virtual extinction (and a cheesy short-lived dark wood, stone facade, concept) not only prospering in its "new but old" presence, but also saving old diners from joining the scrap heap. The comeback has gone political in the best sense, too, as the Massachusetts Historical Commission recently placed all vintage, functioning diners in that state on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the American diner is increasingly popular from the modern to the vintage. In this age of social, economic and political uncertainty, the diner serves as community gathering places where people can unite and be neighbors. There's nothing like meeting friends and making new friends in a nice, warm building with decent hard-working people from staff to clientele. It is the American way of life; diners represent this spirit as well as any American icon.
Many times, diner food is surprisingly good, expertly mixing the basics with sophisticated leanings -- a far cry from the "greasy spoon" image that saddled diners in their infancy.
"If I want fabricated food, I go to McDonald's and if I want it straight from the heart, I come here," says Jim MacNeill the general manager at the Maine Diner in Wells, Maine. "Great chefs create food with a vision instead of creating food to make money. We're geared not to make money, but to make great food.""
I really didn't have an appreciation for the American diner until the early 1990s on a lonesome business trip to Maryland. Going to a business meeting and knowing my job would be eliminated soon because of an agency closure wasn't very appealing. Neither was the area that I stayed, a hodgepodge of endless highways, never ending strip malls and topography flatter than a week-old opened root beer. Some of the restaurants on the highway looked impressive, however, as they often do for the business people, families in between shopping assignments and others just looking for the same old faceless garbage.
I noticed a place called the New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen that looked different from the rest. It was old-looking, first appearing as a greasy spoon but soon realized as a culinary gem that I could call my temporary home. The crab cakes were tremendous, the blueberry pie out of this world, the local friendships and their conversations comforting to hear, and older waitresses that reminded me of my great, wise and humorous Aunt Ceil. I knew that the New Ideal Diner was a new ideal type of place for me to eat. Diners would be on my main menu from this point on.
Soon, I would discover great diners in the northeast U.S. Some are the real deal, all decked out in diner car glory, others more like restaurants with large dining rooms attached to an original diner or diner theme with chrome, counter with stools, or the diner spirit from sassy waitress to great smelling coffee. When a diner is good, however, there's no point in becoming a historical purist longing for the old days of ancient standalone chrome. It gets in the way of eating a good burger.
In summary, diners are synonymous with the word "mouthwatering." The northeast U.S. has some truly mouthwatering places, ready to make you feel at home and serve some of the greatest food on the planet. Here is a list of our favorites in the northeast:
Try the homemade turkey dinner with all the "fixin's" and you'll wonder why you spent twice the amount in some overrated urban restaurant. Sample the tangy and ample macaroni and cheese and you'll understand how phony the market brands are. Taste the seafood chowder and wonder if Rand McNally possibly made a mistake and that the Town of Tilton is actually on the Maine seacoast.
Other standout dishes include the wonderful homemade meatloaf dinner, a high end restaurant caliber caesar salad, a flavorful and abundant tuna melt and, as a side, perfectly formed french fries.
The Tilt'n Diner might serve its dishes within 12 minutes of the order, but that's where the fast food similarities end. Manager Joanne Welch says that the diner has survived because they "make good food fast. It's all homemade."
Welch adds that some customer favorites include the reuben sandwich, meatloaf, fisherman's platter and shepard's pie.
The Tilt'n Diner serves breakfast all day long and, lunch and dinner under lots of neon within two dining rooms and the classic diner car (built in the 1950s and moved from Waltham, Mass., to Salisbury, Mass., and then to Tilton)-- all set to the background music of the Elvis Presley, the Coasters, Five Satins, Buddy Holly and other 1950s stars. It is the "feel good" restaurant of New England, enhanced by a friendly, sometimes wisecracking wait staff and absolutely marvelous food. The 100,000 customers that frequent the Tilt'n Diner from Memorial Day to Labor Day know that good feeling
"We really try to keep the theme going," says Tilt'n Diner General Manager Heather Merrill. "We have hula hoops and satellite radio playing the oldies. It's so much fun to work here. I love working here. We stress to our employees to have fun and love their jobs. It shows, and the customers really like that."
Top off your meal with some delicious blueberry pie, moist carrot cake or a sinful mud pie and you'll leave the Tilt'n Diner wishing that they would franchise into every community in the United States. They haven't franchised, however, so the next time you're within a 50 mile radius of Tilton, make sure you experience the Tilt'n Diner. It is indeed a true gem.
Tilt'n Diner, Exit 20 off Route 93, Tilton, NH, Tel. (603) 286-2204
Maine Diner, Wells, Maine
Don't be discouraged by the long lines waiting to eat at the Maine Diner. Your patience will be amply rewarded by some of the best regional cuisine Maine has to offer.
Yes, there are bigger restaurants with nicer views (the Diner resides on commercial Route 1), but the Maine Diner beats them hands-down almost every time with its out-of-this world seafood chowder, lobster pie, clam cake plate, fresh fried clams, yellow fin tuna steak and "Phantom Platter," an assortment of some of the Phantom Gourmet's (of New England Cable News) favorite items: a cup of seafood chowder, an eight oz. sirloin steak, two baked shrimp, five oz. of baked scallops and homemade onion rings. Don't forget to leave room for the memorable blueberry pie, traditionally a Maine favorite.
A true success story, the Maine Diner started out in 1983 when its first customer, mistook the diner for a bar and drove his car into a pole near the restaurant. He stayed, as did 41 other guest that day, resulting in $41.00 of receipts. Since then, the Maine Diner has brought in several million guests, averaging up to 1,500 on a summer day.
The stress of serving that many people on a given day could take its toll on the staff, but General Manager Jim MacNeill says the overall experience of working at the Maine Diner makes for a pleasant time, which is evidenced in the extremely professional, friendly and efficient wait staff.
"I've been in this business for 27 years," says MacNeill. "Ninety percent of the people who come here I would say are nice and the other five percent are mad at something else in the world, not us. It's easy to stay happy."
Socrates "Louis" Toton started the diner 30 years prior to 1983 as a new endeavor in his retirement. He cultivated a garden in back of the Maine Diner, which, to this day, produces the fresh vegetables that are enjoyed at mealtime at the Maine Diner.
"In the summer season, we grow bigger zucchini than in the grocery stores," says MacNeill. "A fresh cucumber tastes better than anything under heat lamps."
The Maine Diner will not serve food on the menu if the quality doesn't meet its standards.
"We are very particular about clams," says MacNeill. "If the brand we have runs out, we don't serve anymore clams until we can get more from the right source."
The Maine Diner ultimately surpasses the quality of most local restaurants, which advertise themselves as great Maine seafood establishments. For a much lower price, better service and painstaking commitment to consistent quality, you'd be remiss to pass on the Maine Diner as a classic regional dining experience.
Maine Diner, 2265 Post Rd., Route One Wells, Maine. Tel. 207-646-4441
The Deluxe Town Diner exudes the classic look of a true diner with its great smelling coffee and comfort food, neon and stainless steel flourishes, and comfy counter and booth sections. What sets the Deluxe Town Diner apart from the pack, however, is the quest for a wider variety of menu selections tailor-made for the diverse preferences of 21st century dining civilization. There aren't too many places that offer a warm spinach salad with goat cheese on the same menu as the meatloaf special. What's more, the Deluxe Town Diner takes both comfort and healthy food selections to a level higher than most other diners, as our party of four found out by ordering the scrumptious chocolate chip pancakes and an Asian noodle salad with grilled chicken. The tofu and vegetable stir fry meets mac and cheese concept brings all walks of life to this amazing diner open for breakfast and serving night owls until 10 p.m. amidst the warm neon glow and prideful, quick and friendly service.
Deluxe Town Diner, 627 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown, MA. Tel. (617) 926-8400
The Modern Diner is most faithful to its genre, set in a 1941 Sterling Streamliner and having the honors of being one of the first diners placed on the National Register of Historic places. Aside from a dining room extension constructed in the back, the Modern Diner is anything but modern from its truly authentic cramped and authentic stainless steel look to the "What do you want honey?" style service. Boarded up upon hitting hard times in Pawtucket in the 1980s, the Modern Diner was moved, restored and brought back to life in another area of the city, where crowds can be found any time of the day. Great fries, omelettes, French toast with custard sauce, lobster Benedict (replacing bacon with lobster), fresh fruit tuna melts and burgers fulfill the most finicky diner patron at this fun, old-school diner in an old city full of personality and personalities.
"It's a good place to meet people," says Frank Aguiar, who co-owns the Modern Diner with brother-in-law Nick Demou. "You go in at the same time every day and you're going to run into the same people. You start a conversation. You can't help but speak to someone."
The Modern Diner is open for breakfast and lunch, and is cash only. Four to five hundred customers a day come here for very obvious reasons:
"First of all, the food is the number one priority here," says Aguiar. "The second is the price. We have a family atmosphere here that is cozy and not like fast food chains. You can sit down here and really enjoy a good meal."
Modern Diner, 364 East Ave., Pawtucket, RI. Tel. (401) 726-8390
Miss Mendon Diner, Mendon MA
The Miss Mendon Diner sports a gorgeous renovated 1950 Worcester Dining Car presence with an adjoining added-on sunny indoor pavilion dining room and a detached ice cream bus (see photo below) where you can sit at first or top level. It also has a most unusual location: the Imperial Cars auto dealership (the diner turned out to be our favorite car here!). With a heartwarmingly familiar neon and chrome look and huge portions of home cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner items, the Miss Mendon Diner easily achieves diner hall of fame status by meeting every criteria -- food, portions, service and an authentic diner vibe. Our favorite dish: the Thanksgiving Turnover, a mouthwatering flakey pastry crust stuffed with a mix of slow roasted turkey, vegetables and stuffing -- and served with mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and gravy.
Morin's Diner, Attleboro, MA
Vernon Diner, Vernon, CT
Just the mention of Exit 65 off Interstate 84 in Vernon, Conn., significantly elevates taste buds levels. The Vernon Diner is, no doubt, a major player, in this salivary revelation.
With hundreds of menu items, thousands of calories, and seemingly millions of smiling faces admiring the home-cooked food, the Vernon Diner represents the best qualities in a diner-type restaurant. Family friendly 24-hour service 365 days a year, a convenient location right off the highway and an incredible array of food selections including triple decker club sandwiches, roast meats, steak and chops, seafood, Italian and Greek specialties, sandwiches, wraps and a huge breakfast section.
We discovered the Vernon Diner by accident. Nearby Rein's Deli -- another marvelous restaurant with its New York City -caliber deli meats and to-die-for deserts --had a line going out the doors on a recent trip back from Virginia Beach, Va. Disappointed and simultaneously starving, we spotted the Vernon Diner a few hundred yards down the road.
Located in a former Howard Johnson's building (there's no mistaking that roof structure) and open since 2000, the Vernon Diner is large with a counter/stool area and a cavernous dining room. An impressive fish tank livens up the big dining room, but the real life comes from the food. Vernon may not be a seaside town, but you'd never know it by sampling the fresh and very tasty baked stuff filet of sole Florentine. As we all know, sole can be rather bland if not prepared well, but the Vernon Diner surpassed all expectations with a tender version with accompanying fresh spinach. The Greek moussaka we sampled was a huge portion and defined the word "flavorful." -- not too heavy and seasoned perfectly. It came with a Greek salad, which had a wonderful salad dressing, a touch of oregano, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and plenty of feta cheese.
Janice, a waitress who has worked at the Vernon Diner for two-and-one-half years, said that the corn beef and cabbage and fish dishes are quite popular at the Vernon Diner, and that the deserts are made fresh weekly.
"It is one of the nicest places to be," says Janice. "It is like family. People love to come here."
The Vernon Diner satisfies every taste, as evidenced by some truly delicious-looking and beyond abundant selections we saw the waitresses bringing to the patrons. It is a feast with a touch of sophistication and low prices -- the perfect place for the blue collar truck drivers to the most finicky New Yorkers.
Vernon Diner, 453 Hartford Tpke, Vernon, CT. Tel. (860) 875-8812
Miss Lyndonville Diner, Lyndonville VT
The Miss LyndonVille Diner looks like a diner, feels like a diner and, ultimately, tastes like a diner. From muffins, omelets, pancakes and delicious aromatic coffee to club sandwiches, burgers, roast turkey dinners and pot roast, food is served here by salt-of-the-earth waitresses in a real diner setting. Perhaps more than any other diner in New England, you really feel like you're in a diner here -- no pretense, trendiness or short-cuts. That is how the Miss Lyndoville has lasted through the generations and has a tremendous word-of-mouth, local following.
Like the Maine Diner, the tiny Cooperstown Diner is better than some restaurants that think they're really good. One taste of the chicken and biscuits makes one realize that home style cooking can still be done effectively when eating out. Hearty breakfasts, nice lunches and a few dinner selections (the pot roast is very good) make the Cooperstown Diner a fine, family-oriented place. The diner is extremely small with limited booth and counter seating, but that's what makes this virtual hole-in-the-wall so special. The diminutive size brings people and their conversations closer, as well as making the great aromas from the food that much more pronounced.
Diner and Restaurant is the "Real McCoy," a country music song in the
making, where truckers and families can enjoy the best
of traditional diner food at the counter, adjacent booths, or in the
informal, friendly dining room. The
Diner and Restaurant ultimately represents a celebration of American
dreams and values -- that is, a hard-working family-owned establishment
making great breakfast, lunch and dinner for hard-working people in
upstate New York who
come to the diner for a cup of coffee, great conversation and a good
value. It is also hugely popular with the summer crowd coming to and
from the great Village of Cooperstown, N.Y.
The Duanesburg Diner and Restaurant, Routes 7 and 20, Duanesburg, NY, Tel. (518) 895-8843
Related Articles:Miss Lyndonville Diner, Lyndonville, VT
Pleasant View Diner, Smithfield, RI
5 and Diner, Worcester, MA
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