Classic Diners of Connecticut author Garrison Leykam dishes on some places he considers among his personal favorites.
#1: O’Rourke’s Diner, Middletown
One of the few diners built by the New Jersey-based Mountain View Diner Company that is still operating today, owner Brian O’Rourke has set a culinary stage that has attracted the praises of USA Today, the New York Times, Gourmet and Yankee. Brian has infused the menu with his experiences in the kitchens of New Orleans, Ireland and the Caribbean and reinvented the omelet. In fact, there is an entire page of the O’Rourke’s Diner menu dedicated to Brian’s omelet creations. Choosing which one to order can be challenging, especially with such standouts as the Black Forest (house-baked ham with Swiss cheese topped with bacon), Bob Wolfe’s (guacamole, tomato, provolone and bacon served with corned beef hash and brown bread), Cajun firecracker (cheese, creole sauce, mushrooms, onions and peppers topped with Andouille sausage), the Dubliner (corned beef hash and Irish cheddar cheese served with Irish bacon, fingerling potatoes and Irish soda bread topped with jam), the salmon (asparagus, salmon, capers and mushrooms) and all the other Brian O’Rourke creations that will dazzle and amaze you as well as satisfy your cravings for eggs-cellent omelets.
#2: Main Street Diner, Plainville
Originally located on Main Street in Hempstead, Long Island, the Main Street Diner was relocated to its current address on West Main Street in Plainville though the beautiful neon sign that sits atop this gleaming landmark was never changed to reflect its “West” Main Street location. Nestled along the aging railroad tracks at the Main and Whiting Streets intersection in downtown Plainville, one can sit in a booth and be reminded of the historic railroad glory days of this Nutmeg State manufacturing town. Harley-Davidson-riding, singing waitress “Pam” is the face as well as the voice of the Main Street Diner and is always ready to take requests and to lead a singalong with the customers to whom she serves up a classic diner experience with amazing food at good prices in an authentic vintage décor. The sweet-16 classic sandwiches cover the menu roadmap of classic diner fare though I’ve been known to motorcycle considerably out of my way to have the Crabby Crab Melt of two crab cakes topped with Hollandaise sauce, roasted red peppers and melted American cheese on rye bread.
#3: Charlene’s Diner, Jewett City
The power of home-cooking and a personality focused on its patrons is what has kept customers coming to Charlene’s Diner even though it has moved for economic reasons from its original standalone structure at 53 Main Street to its current location at street level in an office building a little ways up at 37 Main Street. Charlene Schultz began her love affair with diners at the age of 16 and in classic entrepreneur fashion with no credit and using her home as equity she ultimately bought the originally-named “Chick’s Diner” and created her legendary Jewett City gem. “The reason the diner has survived is because I’ve always worked a lot of hours. There were many tight moments financially but I could always roll up my sleeves, work even harder and somehow we made it through.” To be sure nothing changes in the years ahead she has already created a succession plan which is taking place today. “I’m about to pass the diner torch to my daughter and son-in-law and my granddaughter is already working here.” However, if you ask Charlene when she’ll be retiring her response is as evasive as the manner in which she guards her recipes. “My Torpedo Sauce goes back to when I was sixteen. We put it in a grinder and also make an omelet with it. It’s sort of like a sloppy joe but sweeter. It’s homemade so if you want the recipe you’ll have to buy the diner.” No matter what you order at Charlene’s Diner you can be assured of delicious, homemade food but I’ll draw your attention to The Hippo, so-named because this unique combination of eggs, meat and cheese between two pancakes heads for your hips but what a way to go!
#4: Makris Midtown Diner, Wethersfield
The motto of the town of Wethersfield is “Ye most auncient town in Connecticut” and part of that legacy is the bragging rights to one of the best-preserved O’Mahony diners around: the Makris Midtown Diner. The original nameplate hangs proudly over the front entrance beckoning hungry patrons in to a bit of history and a whole lot of great home-cooking. An immigrant from Poland in 1995, owner Eva Nowak’s secret sauce of success is her pride of ownership which is matched in equal helpings by the pride with which she took control of the kitchen and breathed new life into the classic breakfast menu. Although Wethersfield was dubbed “Oniontown” in recognition of its being at the center of the onion trade in New England for a century, you can have Eva’s incredible homemade corned beef hash with or without onions. Breakfast offerings such as the “Hearty Makris,” the “Mighty Makris” and the “Big Breakfast Special” are all hearty headliners and there is a variety of pancakes enough to challenge anyone’s ability to settle on just one, including wheat, blueberry, apple walnut, chocolaty chocolate chip, fresh fruit, and more. Great coffee is a classic diner mainstay and the Makris Midtown Diner doesn’t disappoint. It’s specially made for the Makris from Middle and Central American beans roasted by a local coffee maker and the wait staff keeps your cup full. As for Eva’s endless energy, she credits her customers: “It’s like a circle going around. Everyone who comes into the diner gives me something positive; something that makes me feel special. My customers make it easy for me to smile.”
#5: Curley’s Diner, Stamford
Almost completely renovated and bearing little resemblance to the original diner owned and managed by Herluf “Curley” Svenningsen, Curley’s Diner retains its humble place as a “local diner” while being a modern day David and Goliath story of sisters-owners Maria Aposporos and Eleni Bergetis taking on city hall to prevent “Curley’s” from being bulldozed into urban obscurity. Maria has purposefully kept her distance from the adage, “You can’t fight city hall.” Raised in a Spartan family of several generations of high-ranking officers in the Greek military, “We were taught as children,” Maria proudly declares, pushing her finger into the counter table-top to drive her point home, “never to take anything from anybody and to stand up for ourselves.” And, that’s exactly what she did. She fought back and after spending over a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees she won a State Supreme Court case that enabled her to keep Curley’s Diner form being converted to apartments. Her hard work ethic is the hallmark of classic diner ownership: “If you have a diner you have to be here and be involved with everything going on every day. The diner is your life. That’s part of the reason that my customers have become family.” Curley’s Diner serves basic American diner fare with breakfasts a specialty but you don’t have to limit yourself to breakfast items. There are some wonderfully delicious surprises on the menu like The Ranger, a specially-seasoned New York strip steak sandwich served with an egg, French fries and a pickle and the filet mignon covered with bordelaise sauce, tips of sparrowgrass and baby corn that in itself warrants a visit to Curley’s just to say you had it. And, for those baby boomers like me who can nostalgically recall the magic on an egg cream soda, it’s alive and well and served up at Curley’s Diner fountain.
Life’s Dessert: A classic diner is no place to visit when you’re in a rush. The experience is all about stopping time for a few moments to let yourself be transported back to when life was simpler, values were clear and unchanging and a sense of community was pervasive. A strong cup of fresh coffee is the elixir of life. “If it wasn’t for the coffee, I’d have no identifiable personality whatsoever” (David Letterman).