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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:
Shawmut Diner New Bedford, MA
The Shawmut Diner, of New Bedford, Mass., is a loving tribute to America from a close, family-knit 1950s-like perspective. Called one of America's best diners by the Food Channel, the Shawmut Diner's mix of outstanding food and friendly patrons and staff will make you come back again and again. Owner Phil Paleologos is one of those rare people who makes you feel like a longtime friend the first time you meet. Blessed with a gift for humanity and a priority to make people happy and recognize the positive things in life, Phil, his wife, Celeste, and his staff make you feel right at home. You would be hard-pressed to find a more warm and loving eating establishment. This is the the prototype of what we envision as an authentic diner. The chrome facades, vinyl booths and dinners under six dollars certainly help the cause.
I sampled an unbeatable, tender turkey dinner with marvelous stuffing, real mashed potatoes and fresh carrots. The meatloaf dinner, so flavorful and mouth watering, could not be outdone by the most culinary-adept grandmother. Other items on the menu include a meat pie (a customer favorite and a variation of a recipe from Celeste's mother), grilled pork chops, beef stew, broiled schrod and fish and chips. The chocolate chip pancakes are sure to please the kids (and adults, too), and the mouthwatering ham, bacon and sausage with eggs, toasts and home fries keeps the clientele coming back. We did not get to try the "snowball" featuring deep fried ice cream with strawberries and whipped cream, but somehow we get the feeling that it is incredibly good--a full report on this dessert will be included in an updated review sometime soon.
"You can't beat the ambiance," says Celeste before telling a man named Ralph that there is a five cent charge for whining at the Shawmut Diner (and then total laughter breaks out). "You can't go to McDonald's and find what is in a diner. It's that hometown feeling. You feel at home."
The Shawmut Diner was born in New Bedford in 1953 and updated by the Paleologos family when they bought the "neglected diner" in 1983. Thank goodness for their arrival, as this popular dining spot in historic New Bedford brings friendly crowds to sample the wonderful home-cooked meals.
It should be noted that Phil was a nationally syndicated talk show host, with his American Breakfast radio show heard mornings from coast to coast on the Langer Broadcasting Network. He broadcast his show live from the diner in a tiny radio booth. Many times, he interviewed his patrons during this terrific tribute to the hard-working people of America radio show. To no one's surprise, the show was a wholesome delight, much like the food, his staff and the faithful community that return to this oasis in the form of a diner.
Shawmut Diner, 943 Shawmut Ave., New Bedford, MA, Tel. 508-993-3073
Tilt'n Diner, Tilton, NH
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
Duanesburg Diner, Duanesburg, NY
The Duanesburg 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 Duanesburg 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.
Luis Patino and family bought the diner in 1996, changing the name from Charlie's to the Duanesburg Diner and Restaurant. In that time, he has created a household name-caliber restaurant to those who travel Route 20. It's hard to find someone familiar within the area who doesn't like the Duanesburg Diner and Restaurant -- it is a local legend of sorts in a rural, scenic and pleasant small town 20 minutes southwest of Albany.
Whether it's a delicious tuna melt, a burger done the way you envision in your dreams, an authentic roast turkey dinner close to Thanksgiving quality or a slice of homemade pie, the Duanesburg Diner does everything right, making it one of the best diners we've visited in the northeast section of the United States (and we've been to quite a few diners).
Luis' brother, Ricky Patino, says the "family" works long hours to keep the restaurant quality high.
"We have to work pretty long days, sometimes 12 hours (the wait staff, however, works regular shifts)," says Patino. "We like it here in Duanesburg -- it's a very nice town with a lot of nice people."
The Patinos are community-oriented, allowing truckers to sleep in their trucks overnight in the large back parking lot -- as long as they eat at the diner. At any time of the day, it seems like someone knows someone else in the restaurant, with the Patino family and wait staff striking up pleasant conversation with their customers.
Patino, who used to work at a diner and fast food restaurants in Middleburgh, N.Y., and Queens, N.Y., respectively, says that popular dishes include the grilled reuben, pot roast and the aforementioned roast turkey dinner and tuna melt. Desserts are homemade and delicious -- tapioca pudding, apple and cherry crisp and pies, to name a few.
The Duanesburg Diner doesn't shout out, "Hey, look at how good we are." Low-key and amiably to-the-point in its service, atmosphere and food, the Duanesburg Diner might not make any Zagat's Restaurant Guide top 10 list, but that's exactly the beauty of the place: it is one's own prized discovery, an instant culinary friend just waiting to satisfy your palate, wallet and soul.
The Duanesburg Diner and Restaurant, Routes 7 and 20, Duanesburg, NY, Tel. (518) 895-8843
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
Deluxe Town Diner, Watertown, MA
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
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.
Once strictly a breakfast and lunch place with smokers creating an air quality worse than New Jersey's highways, the Cooperstown Diner is now smoke-free and open for dinner until 9 p.m. Service is what you would expect of this genre: friendly, courteous, quick and informal.
Cooperstown is one of the most beautiful villages in the United States; be sure to dine at the Cooperstown dining when visiting Cooperstown. It is indicative of the village's wholesome, all-American image, and with great food to match.
Cooperstown Diner, 136 1/2 Main St., Cooperstown, NY Tel. (607)547-9201
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
Metro 20 Diner, Albany, NY
With one of the greatest displays of a chrome exterior in western civilization, the palace-like Metro 20 Diner sports a terrific interior, too. The spacious dining rooms, the neon and chrome, and counter and stools creates a place that has a restaurant look combined with a pleasing diner presence. What's even more impressive about the Modern Diner is the food quality and variety. Steaks, fish, chops, Italian food and chicken noodle, matzoh and French onion soups are all made as well, or better than restaurants that specialize in those dishes. Additionally, local baker Bill Holden, who has been in the business for 35 years, brings a special homemade touch to the dessert menu by creating everything from fresh pies to dense, rich cakes.
Formerly a flower shop, the Metro 20 Diner received myriad steel which construction workers installed from mid-July 1997 to Oct. 31 of that year. The diner opened on February 2, 1998, and has been a local favorite ever since. Patrons appreciate the food, consistently good service and the spotless surroundings -- inside and outside.
You'd be hard pressed to find a mediocre dish at the Metro 20 Diner -- the commitment to excellence is a role model on how to run a great diner.
"There are three things about running a good business," said Demetrios Michael, owner of the Metro 20 Diner. "They are, take care of your customers, take care of your customers and take care of your customers."
Metro 20 Diner, 1709 Western Ave., Albany, NY. Tel. (518) 456-3876
Morin's Diner, Attleboro, MA
Morin's takes no short cuts in preparing some of the best food we've sampled of any restaurant in New England. The vegetables are fresh, the main entrees on par with some of the more expensive restaurants in the area and the service is thoughtful and caring, whether it's a younger or older employee. We recently sampled incredible spinach and artichoke dip, clam chowder, French Dip roast beef in French toast, and a seafood al fresca that was bursting with fresh pasta, clams, calamari, scallops, shrimp and vegetables. The counter bustles with people reading the paper and families gathering in booths that are reminiscent of Friendly's -- that where the similarities end between the two restaurants, however. The amazing thing about Morin's is that the dining greatness doesn't end at the diner. Walk through another dining room next to the diner (OK, the diner isn't a classic standalone structure, but who cares?) and you'll end up in an extremely cozy, almost romantic, dimly-lit restaurant that features a theme buffet at nights, including seafood and comfort food (ham turkey, chicken dishes, etc.). Ultimately, the options are great at Morin's from the diverse menu to diverse dining choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Morin's Diner, 16 South Main St., Attleboro, MA. Tel. (508) 222-9875
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
Andros Diner, Belmont, MA
There's nothing quite as good as a home cooked meal, and that's why people always return to Andros Diner. More of a small restaurant than a diner, this long-time favorite near the Waltham line is family-run and family-friendly. The meals are amazingly consistent, with the moussaka, lamb dishes, shish kebab, souvlaki, gyros, lemon soup and Greek salads finishing at the top. With a deep respect of Greek-style cooking (example: the horiatiki, an old style greek country salad with the right combination of tomato, cucumber, oregano, pepper, onion, olives and feta cheese slabs), and other entrees that have an extra dimension of taste, the Andros Diner epitomizes the hard-working local restaurant that became a success story. After a rocky start in the 1970s, the Andros Diner greatly improved the food quality, expanded the dining space (it's still a small place) and attracted legions of faithful customers from the trucker to the high-paid businessperson on a harried 20 minute lunch break. Service is quick and sometimes brusque, but it lends to the charm of a diner that does so many things well within limited square footage.
Andros Diner, 628 Trapelo Rd., Belmont, MA. Tel. (617) 484-7322,
Budabing's 50s Cafe, Millis, MA
A fun, brightly lit modern 50s style diner with booths ample counter space and a very large jukebox, Budabing's makes superb breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu is huge, including great barbecue chicken, pizza (the brick oven type), shepherd's pie, meatloaf, turkey dinner and a mixed green salad with chicken, steak and shrimp. Budabing's is one of the great values on this earth, with excellent food to match, making it a local favorite and a viable alternative to cooking at home.
Budabing's 50s Cafe, 1060 Main St., Millis, MA. Tel. (508) 376-8999
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