The Blue Benn, Bennington, VT
The Blue Benn is a Silk City Diner manufactured in Paterson, New Jersey, in the late 1940s. It was assembled onsite in Bennington in 1948, where it has been in business ever since. Located downtown on Route 7, Blue Benn offers plenty of parking, primarily behind the building, and is easy to find.
A blue fabric vestibule tacked onto the front obscures much of the silver sleekness that makes this design particularly appealing (see the beautifully restored Silk City Diner in Castleton for comparison). The vestibule serves as a waiting area for this popular diner’s six booths and was full of would-be patrons at 1:00 on the Thursday we visited. We opted for counter seats to avoid the wait.
Inside, the diner was clean, all of the counter seats in service, and the countertop well-worn. No cooking was done behind the counter; the kitchen and the restrooms were located in an addition built onto the back. As one might expect, the décor was blue, with curtains on the windows and a small jukebox at each booth. It would have been charming except that every vertical surface above and behind the counter was plastered with rows of colored sheets of letter-size paper in plastic sleeves, each bearing the printed name of one menu item and its price. Why this was done is not clear, since the menus are up to date and one could never read every piece of paper without wandering up and down the entire length of the twenty-seat counter in order to see them all. A pair of blackboards adds to the clutter with handwritten information about specials and the quiche of the day, all of it creating an eyesore that detracts from the clean simplicity of the original stainless steel backdrops.
The menu was extensive, featuring breakfast all day, impressive dinner specials, and a fantastic selection of vegetarian meal options. Breakfast included twenty-three different omelets, and the sandwiches spanned everything from hot open-faced choices to cold club sandwiches to specialties from the grill. Prices were reasonable for most things. The menu also offered a nice history of diners in general and Blue Benn in particular.
Service was quick, but impersonal. If you’re looking for the quintessential diner experience with chatty, friendly waitresses, that was not to be found here. Granted, the place was busy, but even smiles were in short supply.
Don decided to forego his usual hamburger and order the fish and chips. I stuck with my usual BLT. Considering the accolades their food receives online, we apparently could have made better choices.
BLT: The bacon was generous, the tomato was the typical restaurant variety, and the iceberg lettuce was okay. The sandwich was short on mayonnaise, however, leaving it basically dry and not particularly tasty. It was served with pickle slices and a reasonable amount of potato chips. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being excellent and 5 being average, I gave it (5).
Fish and Chips: Don enjoyed the crispy battered fish, but the French fries were very brown, limp, and appeared to be the commercially frozen type. The plate came with the usual little paper cup of tartar sauce and a lemon wedge, but not a smidgen of coleslaw, whiff of pickle, or DNA from anything vegetable other than the aforementioned fries. Based on fish and chips enjoyed in other venues, he gave the whole thing a (6).
Dessert: The menu included some interesting desserts in the categories of homemade pies, crisps, and puddings, but we did not partake.
BLT: $4.75, included chips and three pickle slices
Fish and chips: $8.95 for 3 reasonable sized battered fillets and lots of fries, plus tartar sauce and lemon wedge
Root beer (large):$1.75
Total bill before taxes and gratuity: $16.95
The Blue Benn Diner accepts cash only.
Restrooms: The single-person restrooms were clean and well-maintained. (10)
Service: Impersonal. (4)
Overall experience: 6
Blue Benn Diner
314 North Street
Bennington, VT 05201
Their only online presence is on Facebook.
Springfield Royal Diner, Springfield, VT
Springfield Royal Diner is an extremely rare Mahony Diner Car. While the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company of Elizabeth, NJ, produced around 2,000 diners from 1917 to 1952, an offshoot called Mahony Diners, Inc. lasted for only two years (1956-1958) and built only four diners. This is believed to be the one and only Mahony still in existence anywhere.
For over forty-five years it operated as the Royal Diner in Kingston, NY, going out of business in 2001. A group of Springfield businessmen purchased the building and moved it to Springfield in 2002. It has changed owners and operators a time or two since then, and has currently expanded its name to include “and Pancake House.”
With its continuous line of windows, its resemblance inside to a railroad car is intentional. The interior retains its original pink counter and peach bakelite decor. At the far end is an open space for tables, while booths line the front wall. Frame-built additions and a fancy rounded facade have been put on each end, but the original exterior is still visible. All cooking is done in a state-of-the-art kitchen added onto the back, and restrooms are off of the added dining room on one end. For more photos go here.
The place was mildly busy, and most of the customers seemed to be locals whom the waitress knew by name — usually a good sign. She was busy, but appropriately friendly. Still, something seemed to be missing from the ambiance of the place, and it may have been because none of the cooking or prep was being done out front. It lacked the intimacy and sense of inclusion one gets in a more bustling diner. It was almost too pristine and too quiet.
BLT: My BLT was unremarkable, neither bad nor particularly good. I was surprised to see iceberg lettuce, since most of the diners have been using dark green leaf lettuce. Perhaps it is their retro acknowledgement of a 1950s culinary staple. The sandwich contained the usual cardboard tomato, in spite of late summer being the height of fresh tomato season, but at least they were generous with the tomato. The bacon was okay, the bread somewhat dry. I was given the choice of either chips or french fries, but no pickle was to be found. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 5 being average, I gave the BLT a (5).
Hamburger: Don chose a cheeseburger with Swiss cheese, and was pleased that it came with lettuce, tomato, raw onions, pickles, and mayo, as well as the choice of french fries or chips. The burger was thick and juicy, cooked the way he liked it, and he gave it (8).
French fries: Handcut, not too brown. Way too many for one person. (8)
Dessert: The only dessert offered was ice cream in vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate. Don, who is usually a diner dessert enthusiast, was not enthused. (0)
BLT: $7.95, included choice of ripple chips or french fries. Compared to what came with the burger, it seemed overpriced, especially since I chose chips but there was no price differential.
Burger: $7.95, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, mayo, and a choice of ripple chips or french fries.
Root beer: $1.79 for a 20-ounce glass, no refills offered.
Total bill before taxes and gratuity: $18.56
Service: Attentive, friendly. Food arrived within a reasonable amount of time. We had to ask about dessert, which was not offered before the bill was dropped off. (8)
Restrooms: Large, multi-stall, clean. Well-kept and appealing. (10)
Overall experience: 6
Springfield Royal Diner and Pancake House
363 River Street, (Route 106)
Springfield, Vermont 05156
The website in their name is out of date by several years and totally inaccurate. They do have a current Facebook page. The diner is open for breakfast and lunch only, closing at 2 p.m.
CJ’s Diner, Quechee, Vermont
CJ’s Diner is located in the Quechee Gorge Village, which it shares with the Vermont Antique Mall, Cabot Creamery store, Vermont Alpaca, Vermont Spirits distillery, and more. This 1946 Worcester Semi-Streamliner (#787) began its career in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was brought to Quechee in 1991, and has had several owners and several different names since then. The current owners also have a restaurant and bar next door, which would account for the fact that this diner offers mimosas, bloody Marys, and beer on tap.
The interior includes the original terrazzo floors and tiled front on the counter, along with a smattering of the original elements behind the counter. Seating includes stools at the counter and booths. No cooking is done within sight of customers; we assume it’s done in the kitchen of the restaurant. The menu was standard diner fare, including breakfast all day.
Because it’s located in a very heavy tourist area, the atmosphere here is quite different from that of a community-oriented eatery like the Windsor Diner, with its regulars well-known to a friendly staff. Fifties’ rock and roll piped in overhead could not make up for less than enthusiastic waitresses or the rather incongruous TV monitor mounted above the counter. The end result was a big lack of authenticity, when it came to having a true American diner experience.
BLT: My BLT was pretty standard, although the “toasted” bread had blackened grill marks, most likely from a panini press, that tasted burnt. In spite of being in the peak season for luscious garden tomatoes, the sandwich contained the usual tasteless disk of hard commercial tomato, okay lettuce, and an appropriate amount of chewy bacon.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 5 being average, I gave my BLT a (5).
Cheeseburger: Don’s hamburger came with his choice of cheese plus lettuce and a similarly insipid tomato on a Kaiser-type bun. No onions, the usual condiments. The meat was thick but somewhat dry, and he gave the burger a (7).
French fries: These were included in the cheeseburger plate and were quite delicious. We decided they were probably cooked in beef tallow, which gave them lots of flavor and color (10).
Dessert: They didn’t offer and we didn’t ask. Customers were waiting in line, and the waitress seemed more interested in moving us along.
BLT: $6.95, included ripple chips and numerous pickle slices
Burger: $7.95, cheese, lettuce, and tomato; French fries and cole slaw included
Root beer: $2.00 each; no refills offered
Total bill before taxes and gratuity: $18.90
Service: As little as possible. (5)
Restrooms: We did not visit restrooms but suspect they were not literally associated with the diner itself anyway.
Overall experience: 5 (out of 10)
5573 Woodstock Road
Quechee, VT 05059
For more photos, go here.
Have you ever noticed that some diners have the word “Miss” as part of their name? Ever wonder why?
American diners began in the mid-nineteenth century as horse-drawn lunch wagons. They were mobile and traveled from place to place, but instead of offering only walk-up service, they included room for patrons to sit inside at a counter, out of the elements. The lunch wagons primarily traveled to workplaces, providing their services to the men who were employed there. They also remained open at night, after restaurants had closed, thereby offering a place to grab a quick, inexpensive meal for the nighttime crowd.
Eventually, the lunch wagon business became so popular, towns began to enact ordinances to restrict their numbers and hours of operation. Wagon owners responded by finding semi-permanent locations for their wagons, and soon the idea of the prefabricated dining unit as an inexpensive way to start a business took off. Many of them ran on a shoestring budget that did not include funds for maintenance or landscaping, giving them the reputation of “greasy spoons” that appealed only to the working man.
By the 1920s, with women’s suffrage in the forefront, many of the diners recognized the need to attract women if they were to stay in business. In addition to cleaning up their act, adding booths or tables, and improving the esthetics with paint and flowers, many added the word “Miss” to their name in an effort to soften their image and appeal to women.
Over the years, the names of diners may change with new owners, and many of the old “Miss Somebody” diners have been renamed. Today we still have the “Miss Lyndonville Diner” and “Miss Bellows Falls Diner” here in Vermont, “Miss Worcester Diner” and “Miss Mendon Diner” in Massachusetts, and the “Miss Albany Diner” in New York. Hopefully, there are others. The “Miss” has also been commandeered by eating places that are not true diner-car diners, including one of our old favorites for blueberry pie, “The Miss Wiscasset Diner” in Wiscasset, Maine.
Personally, we find the whole “Miss” thing charming — just another reason to appreciate the history of the American Diner.