VT Diner Tour: The Blue Benn

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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.

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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.

Prices:
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
Coffee: $1.50

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

Contact Information
Blue Benn Diner
314 North Street
Bennington, VT 05201

(802) 442-5140

Their only online presence is on Facebook.

VT Diner Tour: CJ’s Diner

Diner at Quechee, VT

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.

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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.

Prices:
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)

Contact Information
CJ’s Diner
5573 Woodstock Road
Quechee, VT 05059
(802) 280-1810

For more photos, go here.

Who Put the “Miss” in the “Miss Somebody Diner”?

Miss Portland Diner

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.

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An Ugly Word for a Beautiful Phenomenon

guttation

My garden plants—especially cucumbers and certain types of weeds—often exhibit a row of water beads in neat, uniform rows on the surface or edges of their leaves early in the morning. This phenomenon, lovely as it is, goes by the unfortunate name of guttation.

Guttation is not the same as dew. Dew forms on the surface of leaves and grasses when moisture in the air condenses into little pools of water. Guttation occurs when water pressure inside the plant pushes water out through water glands called hydathodes. This is most likely to occur on cool nights or when high humidity inhibits natural evaporation of moisture from the leaves. Roots continue to draw water from the soil, and when internal water pressure becomes too high, it forces excess moisture out through the glands.

Guttation is not an indication of over-watering. Rather, it’s the reaction of a healthy plant. Over-fertilizing, however, can have a negative effect via guttation, because of minerals that may be carried out onto the leaf tips and left there to accumulate when the water dries.

The origin of the word is from the Latin “gutta” meaning “drop.”

VT Diner Tour: Miss Bellows Falls

IMG_1421Miss Bellows Falls Diner, Bellows Falls, VT

The Miss Bellows Falls Diner is easy to find on Rockingham Street, off Route 5, in Bellows Falls. It is a Worcester Lunch Car Company diner built in 1944 as #771. It is basically free-standing, with vestibules added on either end, workspace and restrooms along the back, and shingles on the curved roof. Angle parking is in a lot beside it and also across the street.

The outside is enameled metal displaying the name in large red letters on a light gray background, and inside the walls and counter are also faced with enameled metal, the first time we’ve seen that in a Worcester. It was also the first Worcester we’ve seen with panes of stained glass decorating each window.

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The interior is not as well preserved as some we’ve visited. Only nine seats remain at the counter, with gaps where stools are missing. The original bank of coolers is still in use and all meal cooking appears to be done behind the counter. Five oak booths line the outer wall, and the line of windows is dressed up with red and white half-curtains. No chrome makes this place shine, but it appeared to be clean. For more photos, go here.

The service definitely did not shine. While we had previously experienced diner waitresses with dynamic personalities who enjoyed interacting with customers, we now had a basically disinterested young waitress who forgot we were there, even though the entire tiny diner had five customers, including us. After dropping off two cans of Barq’s root beer (no glasses, no ice offered), she proceeded to lean on the counter with her back to us, talking to the young male cook while we watched and waited. Even though he was facing us, he didn’t seem to notice we were more than ready to order. It was obvious the owner was not on-site, and neither employee was invested in the long-term success of the business.

Once the waitress finally remembered us and took our order, we waited a reasonable amount of time for the food, but it was not quick. When delivering the food, she also dropped off the bill, and told us to pay when we were ready. The fact that we might want dessert apparently did not occur to her. This became even more evident when we sat with empty plates and waited for her to notice. By then, more customers had come in, and a full fifteen minutes passed without her even glancing our way. (Bad planning on someone’s part to have a clock on the wall, facing ignored customers.)

The epitome of dearth-of-service came when she finally noticed that we weren’t offering to pay and came our way with a frown on her face. Four types of pie were written on a white board as being available for dessert; Don ordered banana cream. She snatched up the bill and walked away. She never asked if he’d like coffee with his pie. After several minutes, she sauntered back to say there was no banana cream pie and, by the way, no chocolate cream pie, either, just apple and coconut cream. Now, one might hope that a waitress in a tiny restaurant with a minimal menu, would know ahead of time that two of four pies did not actually exist. One might hope she would even erase them from the white board. One might hope.

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Perhaps the empty pie cooler should have been a hint.

BLT: My BLT provided some firsts for me. Number one, the mayo was delivered on the side, albeit in a generous portion. I’ve never been served a do-it-yourself BLT before, but I deconstructed my BLT and slathered a goodly amount of mayonnaise onto the very dry toast triangles. Even so, the sandwich continued to taste dry, and I realized it was because the tomato was paper-thin, on the verge of transparency. I have never seen a tomato sliced that thin before. I actually did not realize it was possible to slice a tomato that thin, and I wish I had witnessed the slicing. It was either done with great skill on a very sharp mandoline or else with a laser beam. I should have thought to record it for posterity with my camera, but I guess I was too enthralled by the superhuman accomplishment to take a photo.

The sandwich was supposed to come with chips and a pickle, so when no pickle was to be found, I waved down the recalcitrant waitress and notified her of the missing item. She delivered two long dill pickle wedges to our table, since Don’s pickle was missing, as well.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 5 being average, I gave my BLT a (2).

Hamburger: Don’s hamburger came with lettuce and mayo on the side and, eventually, the elusive pickle; tomato was available for a 50 cent additional charge (I have to admit, I would have loved to see the thickness of the 50 cent tomato). No onion was offered. He opted for the French fries and cole slaw that came with the hamburger “plate” for an additional $1.99. The burger came on a store-bought hamburger bun; the meat was thick and cooked as requested (medium-well). He gave the burger a (7).

French fries: The fries appeared to be handcut and were golden brown. (8)

Dessert: Non-existent. (0)

Prices:
BLT: $5.95, included ripple chips and a pickle wedge that required a vocalized request to materialize
Burger: $4.00, lettuce and mayo; no tomato, no onion; chips and the elusive pickle
Fries and cole slaw: $1.99 additional; replaced the chips
Root beers: $1.00 each; served in the can with a straw; no glass, no ice, obviously no refill

Total bill before taxes and gratuity: $13.94

Service: Minimal and grudgingly provided. (2)

Restrooms: Single-person, small, gender-specific; somewhat shabby but clean. (9)

Overall experience: 4.5  (out of 10)

Contact Information
Miss Bellow Falls Diner
90 Rockingham Street
Bellows Falls, VT 05101
(802) 463-3700

Serving breakfast and lunch only. Closes at 2 p.m. daily. Accepts credit cards as long as your bill is at least $5.00 before gratuity.

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