Classic Diners of Connecticut author Garrison Leykam dishes on some places he considers amon…
Compiled by Garrison Leykam, author of Classic Diners of Connecticut
What makes a diner a diner? Is it stainless steel? A counter and stools? A building that’s been manufactured in a different location? Breakfast service 24 hours a day? To some devotees of the classic American diner, it is all of these things, and more. We’ve elected to be a bit more inclusive in our requirements. For us, a diner must offer typical American fare at reasonable prices in a comfortable setting, and perhaps most importantly, serve breakfast during all hours of operation. So get ready to hit the road to check out our picks for the best diners in Connecticut. Whether it’s the stellar food, the glistening metal, the glowing neon or the community feel, all have something to offer. And if you don’t see your favorite spot on the list, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also see this month's BEACHCOMBING: Aficionado Chris Dobbs talks about his passion for classic diners.
This eastern Connecticut eatery holds a special place in diner lore. Fitting the definition of a classic American diner that’s been prefabricated, it’s one of only two diners ever made by Oyster Bay, New York-based Bramson Engineering Co., primarily known as a maker of hospital equipment. The structure opened as the Boulevard Diner in East Hartford in the early ’60s, then moved briefly to Southbury and then to South Windham, where it operated as the South Windham Diner until 1995. Sitting unused for years, it was donated to the American Diner Museum in Providence, Rhode Island, before being purchased, restored and opened in its current location in 2005. The food is what you’d expect: all-day breakfast, big portions, popular burgers, hand-cut fries and house-made milkshakes. Connecticut-made Hosmer Mountain soda is offered. The diner’s exterior is one of the state’s most attractive, with “Aero Diner” in a neon-green retro script with an airplane between the words (the two-runway Windham Airport is just down the road). Oh, about that other Bramson diner — no one seems to know what happened to it.
A holy site for breakfast in Connecticut, this diner, opened in 1941, is such an institution in Middletown that when, in 2006, the spot was decimated by a fire, the community pitched in to help it reopen the following year. A variety of breakfast and lunch dishes with a strong Irish influence are offered in this classic diner atmosphere full of hustle and bustle. From bangers and mash to buttermilk pancakes and eggs topped with house-cured meats, it’s quickly clear why there is often a wait to eat here. The “Brian’s Breakfast” special is a must-try for adventurous eaters. It is a two-course surprise meal that consists of what owner and chef Brian O’Rourke (his family has owned the spot since the beginning) feels like making that day. We tried the dish last year and enjoyed one of the best breakfast experiences ever. O’Rourke’s is open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.
This diner sits just off I-95 in West Haven, and features an excellent menu, even for vegans and the gluten-intolerant, who don’t necessarily get prioritized on most diner menus. Georgie’s was built in 1956 in New Rochelle, New York, and has been in its current location since 1967. Bathed in magnificent chrome, with a classic Art Deco sign featuring the typical typography of American road food, it checks all the quintessential diner boxes. Unlike some diners where the aesthetic beauty and tradition comes at the expense of food quality, Georgie’s takes great pride in offering items like fresh-squeezed orange juice, grass-fed beef and organic eggs. Generous portions mean that you won’t leave wanting, either.
Uncle D’s Diner
As is proudly stated on this diner’s website, “If you crave hometown comfort food with a retro flair, then Uncle D’s Diner has the charm, family atmosphere and expansive menu that will quench your appetite and delight your tastebuds.” Owned by husband-and-wife team Darren and Kathy Anderson, Uncle D’s offers lunch, and a robust breakfast menu. In addition to items such as eggs, omelettes, Belgian waffles and Texas French toast, the diner features a signature dish called Uncle D’s Cadillac Taco. It consists of an 8-inch flour tortilla, fried crispy and formed into a taco shell, topped with a toasted corn taco shell, and filled with seasoned ground beef, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, salsa and sour cream.
If there was an entry for “American Diner” in the encyclopedia, you might see a picture of the Olympia Diner on the Berlin Turnpike in Newington — such is the iconic nature of this Connecticut institution. To cruise the Berlin Turnpike, watch the drag racers, check out the businesses new and old, and gaze up at the glorious neon sign of the Olympia is to (in some ways) cut right to the heart of the American experience. The Olympia has been featured in the Zippy comic strip (along with Zip’s from our list). Known to locals as the “OD,” the diner claims to be the “longest stainless steel diner in the country.” The Olympia was first located in Massachusetts before relocating to the Turnpike in 1954.
Blue Colony Diner
With easy-off and easy-on access to I-84, this 24-hour diner in Newtown is a popular spot for both locals and travelers. It offers everything you expect in a classic diner — an Art Deco, silver-plated exterior, plush, cushy booths inside and a menu that features a wide variety of solid breakfast, lunch and dinner options. It also offers beer, wine and a full bar. A must-try is the challah bread (a slightly sweet traditional Jewish bread made with eggs). This bread is available for sale on its own and also powers the diner’s challah French toast, which is thick, doughy and decadent.
Sandy Hook Diner
This quaint and classic country diner was opened in 1935 during the Great Depression. Ever since, it’s been serving food and good cheer at reasonable prices. A short distance off I-84 in the heart of the charming village of Sandy Hook (a hamlet in Newtown), it is small but bursting with old-school nostalgia. A local favorite, fans rave about its warm, welcoming atmosphere and classic comfort food, including dishes like eggs Benedict, biscuits and gravy, corned beef hash, eggs with crisp bacon, pancakes with apricots or chocolate and specials like pumpkin pancakes with honey spice syrup and egg nog French toast. The diner is open for breakfast and lunch on weekdays and weekends. Payment is cash only. The establishment does not have a website and the phone number listed at various sites is out of service, but they’re still open, trust us.
Monica’s State Street Diner
“Good old fashion yummy food” states the “About Us” description on Monica’s State Street Diner’s Facebook page in its entirety. It’s simple, to the point, and yes, old fashioned, but like this New London breakfast-and-lunch spot itself, the description does the trick. Breakfast standards like pancakes, French toast and a variety of omelettes are offered at affordable prices; you’ll have to work a little to spend more than $10 on your meal, though it is possible. Menu items that caught our eye include New York strip steak, served with two eggs, toast and home fries, and the Big Guy Breakfast, consisting of two pancakes, two eggs, two sausage and two strips of bacon.
This Water Street institution is a great example of what a greasy spoon diner can be, and the social role it can play. At any hour of the day or night — all 24 of them — expect Cody’s to be full of all types of people, from all walks of life. The night crowd at Cody’s is a snapshot of a city: ambulance workers, punks, ministers in their Sunday best. Tucked under the yawning concrete of the I-91/I-95 interchange, you could miss the diner if you didn’t know it was there. A lot of people do know it, though, and it’s one of a kind.
Elm Street Diner
Open since 1987, this diner impresses fans with its high-quality ingredients. With breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a full bar and over-the-top milkshakes, Elm Street has something for everyone. Breakfast options include all the classic favorites you’d expect: eggs, buttermilk pancakes and more, and lunch options offer plenty of variety with salads, sandwiches and burgers served alongside flatbreads. And no matter what time of day, or night, you dine, you won’t want to leave without one of those milkshakes; served with one or two straws, they will have you doing your best Frankie Valli impersonation. It is open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Unlike some diners, the Quaker has a real New England character, with menu items such as the classic Yankee pot roast as a standout. The building is a distinctive squat brick structure, with a narrow, long layout. Unlike the flashy neon signs of some of the diners on the list, the Quaker is a bit more humble. You might miss it were you to drive along Park Road in West Hartford too fast. Make sure you don’t, as the no-frills New England aesthetic of this spot make it well worth a visit. One of the oldest diners on our list, the Quaker first opened in 1931, and went through a restoration in 1987.
The Winsted Diner
This humble diner is housed in an unassuming stand-alone building with a wood-paneled exterior in Winsted, a jewel of a town in the state’s northwest hills. This place captures the quirkiness, the local character, the old-fashioned authenticity that we look for in a diner. The building sits at an angle, as if dropped into the streetscape as an afterthought, or as if the rest of the town built up around it. And who knows? Maybe it did. The Winsted Diner is that special. Its defining feature is how small it is, which is almost miniature. Were people in the 1930s that much smaller than we are today? The Winsted Diner may leave us with a lot of questions, but we’re fine with that.
Located on Route 30 right off exit 65 on I-84, the Vernon Diner is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with breakfast served all day. Even with seating for 300 people, the family-owned establishment is often crowded, but the service is quick and friendly. An expansive menu contains almost anything you could possibly think of — house-made soups, gourmet salads, wraps, paninis, roasts, chops, steaks and seafood, in addition to a full bar. But the biggest draw to Vernon Diner may be the spinning cake display. Owner and chef Teddy Demos makes every one of the 25-30 varieties available each day. Trained at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, it’s no coincidence Demos’ most famous cake is his New York-style strawberry cheesecake.
It’s June in Connecticut, so that means the PGA’s Travelers Championship is coming to Cromwell. If you’re fueling up before a day of walking the course or winding down after watching some of the best golfers in the world, the Cromwell Diner is just a chip and a putt away. Open seven days a week from 7 a.m.-11 p.m., they tee up all the traditional breakfast dishes in addition to such offerings as country fried steak, florentine eggs Benedict, the breakfast burger (beef patty, fried egg, bacon, cheddar jack on Texas French toast) and Alexander’s Favorite Sandwich (grilled cheese with corned beef hash and a fried egg). There are also heart-healthy breakfast specials for those trying to keep their waistline under par. The lunch and dinner menus are vast, and (golf pun not intended) they make a pretty mean club sandwich.
Opened in 1954, Zip’s is now a third-generation diner in the Quiet Corner that calls itself “New England’s Finest Dining Car.” Aside from the iconic neon “EAT” sign rising high above the stainless-steel exterior and its appearance on the cover of a 2013 J.A. Jance novella, Zip’s is also known for serving scrumptious breakfasts all day. It’s open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. seven days a week. If you’re not in a breakfast mood, Zip’s has comfort food covered, too. Yankee pot roast, roast turkey with stuffing and old-fashioned meat loaf are just a few of the standouts. Start off your meal with a house-made soup of the day and finish with a slice of pie. The service is friendly and the prices are low. Seems like some things haven’t changed too much since the 1950s.
Locals were given quite a scare when Norm’s Diner, a Groton institution since the 1950s, was put up for sale earlier this year. But luckily for its loyal patrons, owner John Espada told The Day newspaper at the time that he “would never close it.” Under new ownership since the end of February, Norm’s is still as classic as it gets. It’s what your mind’s eye sees when you think of a traditional, rail car-style, stainless steel-sided diner equipped with booths and swivel stools. The menu is fairly basic, but when it comes to a small diner, it’s all about the atmosphere and execution. Minor renovations are in the works for both the interior and exterior. Norm’s operates from 5 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, but once it opens Friday morning at 5, the doors don’t close until Sunday at 4 p.m. Breakfast is served anytime.
Post Road Diner
Post Road lays it on thick with portions and that old-school diner feel. Built in 1947 by Oakland, New Jersey-based Paramount Diners, the homey eatery just off I-95 is filled with retro paraphernalia, such as Coca-Cola items, models of cars, old signs, a soda fountain and working jukeboxes. Open around the clock Friday and Saturday, and 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, Post Road offers a super-sized menu filled with classic American fare, plus Italian and Greek eats. The breakfast options are especially wondrous, with plenty of omelettes, pancakes and French toast to choose from. Breakfast specials include Oreo waffles, apple and Boston cream pancakes, and cinnamon raisin flambé French toast — made with bananas, whipped cream and a brown sugar and banana sauce. Officially, the specials are only available on weekends. But if you’re there during the week, ask your server and they might be able to hook you up.
This family-owned-and-operated diner on Route 6 has been serving Bristol its breakfast 365 days a year since 1988. In addition to the typical before-noon staples, such as biscuits with sausage gravy and their five styles of eggs Benedict, Rodd’s prepares delicious crepes stuffed with everything from eggs, cheese and home fries to fresh fruit to house-made hash. In fact, stuffed is kind of a theme at Rodd’s — Nutella-stuffed French toast is a regular special and there’s a separate lunch menu boasting more than 30 kinds of stuffed burgers. And, of course, you’ll leave … stuffed. But if you still have room, try an apple taco for dessert — think homemade apple pie in taco form.
In business since 1949, this classic breakfast-and-lunch spot excels in both areas. Made-from-scratch corned beef hash and shredded hash browns grace many breakfast platters and draw fans from near and far. Two particularly indulgent breakfast choices include the Paradise pancakes, two huge cakes topped with grilled bananas, chopped pecans, shredded coconut and powdered sugar, and the cinnamon raisin French toast, a bursting cinnamon bun sliced in half, splashed in egg wash and browned on the griddle. A vegetarian option is the Laurel omelette, filled with spinach, red bell pepper, mushrooms and feta cheese. The signature lunch item is the Laurel barbecue burger, topped with cheddar, onion rings, bacon and barbecue sauce. If you like the sound of the menu, be sure to stop by early; Laurel closes by 2 or 2:30 p.m. every day. It’s closed Monday. Also, only cash is accepted.
Woodbury and Waterbury
You’ll be hard pressed to find better house-made doughnuts in Connecticut, perhaps all of New England, than the ones served up at this Litchfield County institution. Owner Dorothy “Dorie” Sperry and her crew bake fresh batches every morning, with cinnamon sugar, jelly, chocolate- and vanilla-dipped and cream-filled among the mouth-watering varieties. But there’s so much more than doughnuts to these ’50s-inspired eateries. The rest of the menu is elevated diner fare featuring a wonderful breakfast selection, including a smoked salmon platter, Nutella-stuffed French toast and fresh corned beef hash. Other than doughnuts, Dottie’s might be best known for its chicken pot pie. It offers two versions: an all-meat pie (only served at the Woodbury location) is loaded with tender and flavorful chicken chunks, and a pie that comes with veggies inside. The pies are completely enclosed (not just covered at the top), meaning there’s more flaky goodness to enjoy. A tip: If you have a hankerin’ for doughnuts, stop by as early as you can; they can sell out.
Woodbury: 203-263-2516, Waterbury: 475-235-2482, dottiesdiner.com
Located where routes 7 and 44 meet not far from the Massachusetts line, Pop’s actually has its beginnings over the line in Sheffield, where Pop’s owner Tina Zucca’s family operated Country Kitchen (later renamed Sunrise Diner) on Route 7. After Sunrise closed in 2013, Zucca opened Pop’s a year later, coaxing her parents out of retirement to help with the operation. Her father, Bill Wandall, is now Pop’s cook. Wandall whips up all the usual American diner fare here, as well as a few non-standard options, including a kielbasa and Swiss cheese omelette, breakfast potatoes offered three ways — grilled, deep fried or hash browns — and, since you’re definitely in the country, country fried steak. On the weekend, when only breakfast is served, specials include eggs Benedict and sausage gravy over biscuits. Catering to a community firmly rooted in a farming tradition, Pop’s opens early every day, at 4 a.m. Closing time is 1:50 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 6:50 p.m. Friday.
Country Corner Diner
Opened in 2000 and located on Route 63, this small-town eatery has earned a strong local following with its large portions and adventurous offerings. A prodigious menu is bolstered by an extensive selection of daily specials. A recent breakfast-specials menu included eggs Benedict with crabcakes, a chili cheddar omelette, banana walnut cranberry pancakes and Texas French toast with an apple maple bourbon glaze. The regular breakfast menu features the Country Corner omelette, with sausage, bacon, mushrooms, onions and peppers, and homestyle blintzes, with sour cream and applesauce. Open 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, Country Corner also boasts a robust dinner array, from American classics such as fried chicken and steaks and chops to Italian and Greek specialties. House-made desserts include loads of pies, cakes and puddings. After all that, you might want to stop by the CrossFit gym just down the road.