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Guy Bocabella restaurant critic graphicGuy Bocabella Tells It Like It Is -- Your Blue Collar Roving Restaurant Critic

The Best No-Frills Massachusetts Restaurants

Enough already of the bistros, trattorias and gourmet restaurants that have plenty of attitude, lofty prices and little to impress my second brain, otherwise known as my stomach.

You can't go anywhere now where the waiter or waitress

doesn't tell you his or her name and then suddenly takes ownership of the whole restaurant... oh, excuse me, I mean bistro. "I have this on the menu, I have that." "My chef offers these specials." "I am really important."

Then, they tell your kid to be quiet because only the wait staff can talk during this transitional moment in dining-out history.

There's no "I" in restaurant! This is just another example of people in society feeling entitled to everything under the sun. All I ask is for the service to be pleasant, efficient, be nice to your kids, and to not practice totalitarianism.

It just seems so hard to get a good meal these days. Sometimes, you just don't want bread drizzled in olive oil and volatile organic compounds. Sometimes, you just don't want squid encrusted with a rare basil extract from the precious northern mountains of Newark, NJ, At the risk of sounding terse and cliched, sometimes, you just want a good cheeseburger and fries.

We recently went to an Adirondack-style lakeside restaurant in central New York state with a great outdoor dining view and one of the most pretentious menus in the United States. The kids, so hungry after a long day at the beach, were literally crying for just one piece of normal-looking bread, or a cracker. Could the wait staff come up with anything so unusual like that? NO! They could only offer spicy wasabi nuts, strong enough to burn a hole in the equator and have the local fish population go belly up. This restaurant also offered salmon encrusted (here we go again) with spicy black bean sauce. We asked if they could leave off the sauce. They said they couldn't. We did not know this, but salmon, apparently, are covered with spicy black bean sauce when they come out of the ocean.

This same restaurant charged $18.00 for some cous cous with some eggplant and olive oil thrown in! A box of cous cous purchased from the local market for $1.99 could feed the entire state of New York.

This is the type of place that annoys Guy Bocabella so much. But, apparently, the couple sitting next to us (a distinguished-looking man in his 60s with a 30-something girlfriend (he was fascinated on how she was able to improve her typing speed) loved the place. It was enough to make me jump in the lake and cover myself with the spicy black bean sauce floating around the algae.

Guy Bocabella has nothing against the fancy restaurants. Some do it very well. I think upscale restaurants, for example, like Clay Hill Farm in York, Maine, the Chart House in Greenwich, Conn., and the Top of the Hub in Boston, Mass., are all worth the special trip. They serve creative dishes that taste great and the people there are warm, professional and thoughtful.

I treasure the well-run upscale restaurants for special occasions. For the common, everyday budget-minded people like me looking for great food at prices that won't have you worrying before payday, however, I recommend, from the top of my stomach, the following :

Bliss Brothers Dairy, Inc. At last, a 1960s-like family-style restaurant that reminds me of my favorite childhood places -- large tiled dining rooms, booths, counters, the smell of coffee brewing, burgers, hot dogs and out-of-this world ice cream. Bliss Brothers actually supplies ice cream to many local businesses including some ice cream stands that don't make their own ice cream. Bliss Brothers has a take-out section that includes a viewing window where the ice cream is packaged and its milk bottled. An old Bliss Brothers milk delivery wagon is also on display. Bliss Brother is a great place to go alone and read the paper, or as part of a large group wanting to sample some very good comfort food. It's like a huge Friendly's with better food and ice cream (not that there's anything wrong with Friendly's; Bliss Brothers just raises this type of restaurant to another level).

Bliss Brothers Dairy, Inc. 711 Park St, Attleboro, (508) 222-2884

Cambridge Common, Cambridge Cambridge Common seems to please everyone from the most liberal Harvard University students to the most extreme blue collar types. They all have one thing in "common"; they know a good bargain when they see one, as Cambridge Common offers a wide variety of lunch and dinner items at reasonable prices in a dark, cavernous setting. Particularly good is the curried chicken wrap -- tangy, substantial and addictive -- and a wonderful meatloaf dinner.

Cambridge Common, 1667 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, (617) 547-1228

Mario's Italian Restaurant, Lexington Mario's has always been thoughtful for many years to families by keeping the prices low on huge portions on pasta. They also make a pretty good darn Italian pizza. The pasta quality is not quite up to the best Italian restaurants, but not far behind -- remarkable because the prices are almost half of those in the high profile eateries. Mario's dining room is small and noisy with not much of an atmosphere, and there can be a wait, especially on weekend nights. The lack of atmosphere and presence of noise, however, is not enough to deter faithful clientele and newcomers to this traditional, family-oriented restaurant in the heart of affluent Lexington.

Mario's Italian Restaurant, 1733 Massachusetts Ave Lexington,(781) 861-1182

George's Drive In, Mendon One of the last authentic drive-ins in eastern Massachusetts, George's has waitresses come to your car to take orders. There's also a walk-up window to place orders and large picnic areas to enjoy the standard burgers, hot dogs and chicken fillet sandwiches. A good variety of Hershey's ice cream rounds out this fun experience, which is close to more fun: the Mendon Drive-in outdoor movie theater, Southwick's Zoo and a miniature golf course.

George's, 116 Uxbridge Rd., Mendon, (508) 473-2125

Budabing's 50s Cafe, Millis 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, (508) 376-8999

Mug -N -Muffin, Norwood It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the Mug and Muffin specializes in coffee and muffins. Both are done well here in a long, dimly lit family-style dining room that brings back memories of the former New England-based Pewter Pot chain. Besides muffins and coffee, the Mug and Muffin does many things well, such as great hearty eggs and pancakes, club sandwiches and tasty burgers. Located in revitalized Norwood Center, the Mug and Muffin may not be as eclectic as some of the newer, shinier downtown offerings, but it does have time on its side -- a place where the waitresses are polite, the atmosphere informal and the food done just right.

Mug-N-Muffin, 716 Washington St., Norwood, (781) 762-8927

The Phoenix Bar & Grille, Shirley Popular amongst the locals and nearby Army Reserve at Devens, the Phoenix Grille knows how to cook a good, large steak and create an overstuffed sandwich. Big portions meet good quality in this renovated former dive with pleasant dining rooms and a large, long bar area. The Phoenix Grille will remind one of an Adirondack-style steak house with lots of wood, informal surroundings and huge lumberjack-like portions. The fact that it's in north central Massachusetts and within striking distance for Boston residents (40 minutes) is reason to cheer for people looking for an out-of-the-way place to eat that is also safe and somewhat gentrified without being pretentious.

Phoenix Bar & Grill, Main St., Shirley, (978) 425-4835

Elm Street Market, Stockbridge The old days are back at this local independently-owned small supermarket with a old-fashioned lunch counter in the charming Norman Rockwell town of Stockbridge. Great sandwiches highlight a cold-cuts dominated menu. Elm Street Market makes the conventional somehow taste better with excellent sub rolls and fine quality meats. Eating here fells like you're back in the 1940s or 50s. There's no way you could catch this kind of small town ambiance at one of the "superstore" supermarkets, or most restaurants for that matter.

Elm Street Market, 4 Elm St., Stockbridge, 413-298-3634

Coffee Sensations, Medfield The red stools and black and white tile lend a true feeling of being in a time warp at this lunch counter tucked away in Lord's Department Store-- another time warp where customers have been finding an amazing diversity of merchandise for the past 60-plus years. Around the corner from the toy section, Coffee Sensations offers wholesome American favorites like cheeseburgers, grilled cheese, ice cream sundaes and chocolate shakes. It's much like the old days of Woolworth's luncheonette, only much better.

Coffee Sensations, 446 Main St., Medfield, (508) 359-6859


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