Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Say the Word “Diner”…

to anyone in New England (and south through New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania) and an immediate image comes to mind. A diner is a prefabricated building brought to the site in whole or in sections. The most revered of these were built by Worcester, Silk City, Sterling, Kullman, O’Mahoney, Paramount, and Mountain View. There will be an abundance of stainless steel installed to make the
diner easier to clean and to add a touch of “glitz.” There will always be a counter with stools and, in the larger diners, comfy booths. There will be waitresses of an indeterminate age who will, even on your first visit, address you as “hon,” “darlin',” or “sweetie.” Some serve breakfast all day. Some are open only for breakfast and lunch. Most offer daily “blue plate specials,” although few actually serve the specials on blue plates. And to purists, alcohol is never served.

But we have learned that diners come in all shapes and sizes. I would call County Line Café (Galax, VA), about which I wrote earlier, a diner—or at least a diner in its soul.

But today we visit a “real” diner. “A landmark to Hillsville (VA) since
1946, the Hillsville Diner is now the oldest continuously operating streetcar diner in the entire state of Virginia. Manufactured by the O'Mahoney company, the facility is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Hillsville Historic District. (It was) moved here from Mt. Airy, NC, where a young Andy Griffith frequented” (hillsville.com).

“The O’Mahoney Company specialized in pre-fabricated restaurants.
And this one…still has most of its original equipment, still used daily for breakfast. The grills have deep pockets, carved out by decades of scraping pancakes and eggs off them with a spatula….One notices the tiny bar stools. Butts have gotten a whole lot bigger through the years” (Larry Bly at roanoke.com).

The diner is decorated with multiple “gewgaws” (or as they are often called in the South—“gimcracks).”

And just inside the front door stands an old-fashioned scale that tells you “Your Wate and Fate.”

At breakfast, the owner and short order cook is stationed behind the counter where he prepares eggs on a flattop that has two round
depressions just large enough to contain two eggs without the whites spreading over the entire surface. A giant pan of bacon is kept warm here after coming from the back kitchen.

Just to the right is another cooking surface that is just large enough to contain three of the diner’s famous hot cakes. And further to the right is this Holman Conveyor Toaster. The bread is placed on the
top belt where it is “toasted” on both sides before shooting out into the bottom catch pan. Incidentally, Holman is still producing this style of restaurant toaster.

“A real dining room has been added (twice) in the back, as has a side kitchen for preparing baked, cooked and assembled luncheon specials” (Larry Bly at roanoke.com)

We had breakfasted at the Hillsville Diner on our 2008 visit to the
Blue Ridge Mountains and Chuck has a fond—very fond—remembrance of the diner’s hot cakes, so I was not surprised that the three stack with country ham was his choice. Oh, and he added a side of home fries. These latter were actually hash browns, and while I didn’t taste them, looked nice and crispy—just as I like. But these were Chuck’s, and he prefers home fries.

But did the reality of the hot cakes live up to his memory? Were they as good as described here by bigdaddy at mrbreakfast.com? “I drive to Hillsville to eat breakfast at the diner because of the pancakes. You have to understand that I want my pancakes the way I had them as a child growing up on the farm. I am not interested in all different fillings for my pancakes, nor am I interested in all kinds of toppings. For breakfast I want good, old fashioned pancakes with butter and maple syrup. At the Hillsville Diner it is as though I was back in grandma's kitchen and anxiously waiting on my pancakes and bacon. Three cheers for the pancakes at the Hillsville Diner!!”

Well, yes they were. In fact, as Chuck was busy swirling a bite of hot cake through a pool of syrup, a gentleman came from the back dining room. “I have eaten pancakes in diners all over New England,” he said to the owner, “and I have never had any as good as these.” At this point, Chuck replies (with a mouth full of hot cake), “I'll second that.”

The country ham was a very large slab of hammy goodness. It was appropriately salty. Appropriately thin and chewy. And because country ham is supposed to be chewy, most restaurants will bring you a steak knife to cut it with. I now remember that we considered the country ham at the Hillsville Diner to be among the best.

Still on my quest for the ultimate biscuits and gravy, I ordered the single split biscuit with sausage gravy and a side of country ham. And I added a side of grits (below) to be eaten with some of the gravy. But, alas, I must admit that these were not good biscuits and gravy.
In fact, the gravy had an almost sour taste. So much for spooning it over my grits. I finally took the approach of adding a bite of ham to each bite of biscuit and gravy and the intense flavor of the ham hid somewhat the taste of the gravy. This was a disappointment, since the diner’s sausage gravy is also considered to be one of their specialties.

I am going to split the rating. I would give Chuck’s 4.0 Addies after subtracting a point for calling hash browns home fries. Mine would get 2.0 Addies based on the country ham alone.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

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