VT Diner Tour: The Blue Benn

IMG_0790

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.

IMG_0780

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.

IMG_1591

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.

Save

Save

Save

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.

IMG_1422

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.

IMG_1426
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.

Save

Save

Save

VT Diner Tour: Birdseye Diner

IMG_1334

Birdseye Diner, Castleton, VT

Birdseye Diner in Castleton, Vermont, is a real beauty both inside and out. It is a Silk City Diner, manufactured in the 1940s by the Paterson Vehicle Co. of Paterson, New Jersey, and has been lovingly restored to its original condition by the current owners. In 1996, they removed a pitched roof and barnboard siding covering the outside so that once again the entire diner, including the curved roof, is visible in all its 1940s glory.

Much of the interior chrome added in the 1960s to “modernize” the diner was also removed. Ceramic tiles in aqua, cream, and black cover the walls beneath the windows and the vertical surfaces of the counter and footrest. The terrazzo floor is intact, the vaulted ceiling gleams, and the continuous line of windows keeps everything bright inside. This diner is long and sleek, with twenty stools at the counter and several booths along the outside wall. When seated in a booth, the long line of windows makes it feel like a diner car on a train. (For more photos, go here.)

IMG_1335

The current owners also extended the seating by adding what looks like the interior of a smaller Silk City Diner perpendicular to the original at one end. That diner is enclosed within the building next door and is only visible from inside. Outdoor seating along the sidewalk is also available. Parking is on the street.

Cooking is done in a kitchen added onto the back, and does not occur behind the counter. The diner was busy, and the servers were as friendly as time would allow. Food delivery was very fast. When I expressed interest in the diner itself, they graciously gave me a postcard of the diner and a quick synopsis of its history. Hanging behind the counter is a framed copy of early advertising for purchase of a Silk City Diner, promising potential owners “financial independence” and “big profits” for a “modest investment.” All in all, the place was fun and the food was good.

IMG_1340

BLT: My BLT was excellent with plenty of flavorful bacon (bordering on almost too much), tasty tomato slices, lots of deep green lettuce, and plenty of mayo on store-bought whole wheat bread toasted just right. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being excellent and 5 being average, I gave it (9). Homemade bread would have pushed it all the way to a 10.

Burger: Don’s burger was very good, cooked just right and not too chewy (a problem in some previous diners). It came with a choice of handcut French fries, cole slaw, or chips, and he chose the fries. It was accompanied by deep green lettuce, a tomato slice, and pickle slices, the whole thing on a golden bun with more character than average. (9.5)

French Fries: The fries were unremarkable but get extra points for being handcut. (7)

Dessert: Don chose the lemon meringue pie which he rated an (8).

Prices:
BLT: $4.95, included chips and dill pickle slices
Burger: $8.75, included lettuce and tomato, pickle slices, and a choice of chips, French fries, or cole slaw
Dessert: $3.25
Root beers: $2.00 each (large), refilled

Total bill before taxes and gratuity: $20.95 

Restrooms: The restrooms were very small, single-use, designated by gender, and clean. Photos of other diners were featured in the restroom and the little hallway. (10)

Service: Pleasant and fast. (10)

Overall experience: 9.5

Contact Information
Birdseye Diner
590 Main Street
Castleton, VT   05735
(802) 468-5817

www.birdseyediner.com

Save

Save

VT Diner Tour: The Windsor Diner

IMG_1131 (2)

The Windsor Diner, Windsor, VT

The Windsor Diner is easy to find on Route 5, Main Street, in Windsor, Vermont. Parking is on the street, but we had no problem finding a spot. The original curved roof of this Worcester Lunch Car Company diner is hidden beneath a conventional roof, and an extension to one side holds additional seating. The extension continues behind the diner, providing space for restrooms and a dishwashing area. At the end of June in 2016, when we visited, the road had just been repaved and the sidewalks were still under construction.

Inside, this diner is a gleaming pleasure to behold. The original configuration has been retained, with the long counter and stools facing the cooking area and the original coolers and  work area at the far end still in use. (More photos here.) Booths stand along the outside wall. Signs identify the diner as #835, built in 1952. The two women working out front that day (I believe one was the owner) kept up a jovial, teasing banter between themselves and with patrons, giving the place a welcoming, fun atmosphere. Service was quick and friendly, and their motto, “Good Food Fast,” was accurate.

IMG_1134

BLT: My BLT was very good, with a generous amount of flavorful bacon, a relatively tasty tomato, lots of lettuce, and plenty of mayo on whole wheat bread toasted just right. A long slice of a dill pickle and a mound of ripple chips came with it. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being excellent and 5 being average, I gave it (9). Homemade bread would have pushed it all the way to a 10.

Burger: Don’s burger was also very good, made with 1/3 pound of real ground beef, instead of a chewy commercial patty. He opted for the hamburger plate in order to have French fries instead of chips, and the plate included a portion of very tasty cole slaw. Tomato, onion, pickle, and lettuce were also included, and the burger was cooked medium-well, as he requested. He gave it a (9) because he’s saving a 10 for a burger that knocks his socks off, but this one came close.

French Fries: The handcut fries were very brown and somewhat soggy. (7)

Dessert: Don chose the cherry crumble, made in-house as are all their desserts, and it was so excellent, he gave it a (10). I tried a little, and I agreed.

Prices:
BLT: $5.50, included chips and a large pickle spear
Burger: $8.95, included French fries, cole slaw, lettuce, tomato, raw onions, and a large pickle spear
Dessert: $3.95
Root beers: $2.00 each (large), no refills offered

Total bill before taxes and gratuity: $22.40 

The Windsor Diner does not accept credit cards.

Restrooms: The restrooms were single-use, designated by gender, small and unremarkable, and very clean. (10)

Service: Friendly, fast, and welcoming. Nice people who seemed to sincerely enjoy what they were doing. (10)

Overall experience: 9

Contact Information
The Windsor Diner
135 Main St
Windsor, VT
(802) 674-5555

Save

VT Diner Tour: Chelsea Royal Diner

Chelsea Royal Diner

Chelsea Royal Diner, West Brattleboro, VT

The Chelsea Royal Diner is an opportunity to see well-preserved elements of a vintage 1938 Worcester Diner, with a vaulted “barrel” ceiling, black and white mosaic tiled floor, and marks on the floor where the stools were once bolted in place. It still has the original windows and double front doors, as well as the original coolers back in the corner. Booths now sit along the outside walls as well as in the space where the counter and cooking area once were, beneath the metal framework of the original vent system.

Chelsea Royal inside

The diner has been expanded with the addition of a building behind it, which is where one enters and where all the food prep occurs. The “Royal Farm” is visible behind that building, including chickens, gardens, an ice cream stand, and picnic tables. The original counter is in the newer building, which also has booths and tables and the restrooms. Everything looked clean and sharp and well taken care of.

We were seated by a hostess and immediately taken care of by a friendly waitress wearing a Chelsea Royal Diner t-shirt that said “Good Food Served Fast” across the back. Plenty of staff were on hand to keep things clean and moving right along. The menu was extensive, and they had many specials. Breakfast all day featured their own farm-fresh eggs, and they also spotlighted veggies from their farm, as well as local produce from neighboring farms. They serve all grass-fed beef, and when Don ordered his burger well-done, the waitress’s reaction was a horrified “No, no, no, you don’t want to do that with grass-fed beef!” At her suggestion, he went with medium-well. Their logo, it turns out, was remarkably true; the food came incredibly fast.

BLT: Unfortunately, my BLT was a disappointment. The toast was dry and thin, made with store-bought bread that was slightly burnt. The bacon was good, the tomato standard, and the lettuce okay. It seemed thin on mayonnaise. Three slices of a fat sour pickle and a generous heap of ripple chips accompanied it. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being excellent and 5 being average, I gave it (5).

Burger: Don’s burger was cooked just right and was juicy and flavorful, the grass-fed beef a notably positive change from the commercially processed burgers served elsewhere. It came with tomato, onion, lettuce, and pickle slices, and he substituted fries for the chips, for $2 extra. He gave the burger (9) and said it would have been a 10 except that the tomato and onion each had a hard core that made them unappealing.

French Fries: The handcut fries were excellent and worth the extra charge. (10)

Dessert: Once again, dessert was an adventure! (See our Bob’s Diner review.) Don ordered Indian Pudding, something we both love, but when it came, we agreed that it was inexplicably sour and inedible. The waitress apologized and took it away, and Don ordered the Maple Walnut pie. It was the opposite extreme—a sweet and gooey Vermont version of a southern pecan pie—and Don loved it. He gave it (8). Apparently the crust could have been better, but the filling was great.

Prices:
BLT: $5.50, included chips and three large pickle slices
Burger: $6.99, grass-fed Angus beef, plus lettuce, tomato, raw onions, pickle slices, and chips
French fries: $2.00 extra, upgrade from chips
Pie: $3.50
Root beers: $2.25 ea., 20 oz. refilled

Total bill before taxes and gratuity: $22.49 

Chelsea Royal Diner does not accept credit cards or out-of-state checks.

Restrooms: The restrooms were fun. Designated as “Royal Kings” or “Royal Queens,” each was a large single-person room with a colorfully painted mural that included a full-size king or queen, as appropriate. They were clean and bright and well-maintained. My only complaint was that, for a restaurant with their capacity, a single-person bathroom resulted in a waiting line outside the door. (9)

Service: Friendly and fast. (10)

Overall experience: 8.5

Contact Information
Chelsea Royal Diner
487 Marlboro Rd.
West Brattleboro, Vermont 05301
802-254-8399

www.chelsearoyaldiner.com

Save

Save

Save