A homage to (mostly) lost restaurants

The best part of car traveling for me is stopping at out-of-the-way restaurants. I like to eat most anything, most anywhere, and the more grease the better (though I’m fond of tofu too). 

But I actively dislike most fancy restaurants, maybe because they’re filled with fancy people I’d love to run over on a dark road where their BMW has broken down and their cell phone won’t work and that guy with the leather mask has started up his chainsaw …

The best for atmosphere are the tidy hometown counters where everybody knows who they are and what they’re doing, and top-of-the-grill American cooking is treated with the respect it deserves. The day my MacArthur genius grant rolls in, I’m going to buy me a halfass pickup and spend the rest of my allotted time dining at every last lunch counter in America.

The Tomte restaurant in Lindsborg, Kansas, didn’t quite qualify as offbeat. We found it in a book called Road Food that served as our unofficial guide on several summer trips. Lindsborg (which Linda remembers from her Kansas youth and is pronounced “Leensborg”) is a Swedish-themed town with “Välkommen” flags flapping off every signpost. But the Tomte (named after a Scandinavian elfish being) was a\the stamping ground for the home crowd – quiet, clean, walls tight with pictures of 2 or 3 generations of patrons.

Are you an oatmeal fiend? Me either. But when we ordered oatmeal at the Tomte we received a bowl with a side pitcher of cream. And cinnamon. When we ordered hash browns, they came as paper-thin, hand-grated potato slashes that descended directly from spud heaven. The Lindsborg website today indicates that the Tomte is no more. Disappointing – though thank god it didn’t live long enough to slump into a lesser incarnation.

Speaking of the best in breakfast potatoes, for home fries I nominate the Opera House in Dixfield, Maine. Originally an actual opera house built around 1905 by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (which I’ve always found a rather, well, odd name), it’s no longer a restaurant, but continues as a community rental space. Anyway, for the home fries, the spuds were boiled, diced and fried to fork tenderness without falling apart, along with paprika and I don’t know what else.

Reubens used to be a discovered treat, but nearly everybody serves them these days. A reuben is a sandwich of corned beef on rye with sauerkraut and (it better have) Russian dressing. I can’t recall when or why we stopped at Nick’s in North Adams, NY, off I-81. Likely we were on our way to visit Chris Hessert in Ontario. Nick’s reuben came open-faced, the rye grilled both sides and everything … perfect. No reflection on Sullivan County reubens – especially at the Barn, the Jolly Trolley or D&D’s – but some things just cannot be bettered. No sign of Nick’s continued existence.

Our first day on the road to our Bass Lake, Michigan, vacation one summer in the late ’80s or early ’90s, we struck it doubly rich: a good roadside lunch and a supper of major distinction. (As a nod to the latter – the Wrangler Restaurant – I should title this part of the recitation “Apologies to Ohio,” to make up for all the nasty things I’ve said about that flat, uninteresting, almost numbing state – whoops.)

First, we had lunch at Gail & Tina’s Place in Burnham, PA, off Route 322, one of the state’s most glorious roads, switching between majestic mountain superhighway to get-lost-at-the-wrong-turn-from-Main-Street squiggles in a hopscotch, crazy-quilt pattern. (I’ve read that a lot of the fun part has now been ironed flat.)

We picked G & T’s for our usual three reasons: It wasn’t a fast-food hole, the parking strip was crowded with aging pickups – and gut reaction. A low-slung shack painted federal blue, it made a statement without caring too much. Inside, the tables and benches were put together from standard two-by-sixes, selectively scorched, then polyurethaned to a glassy sheen.

My large, excellent burger was a bit overcooked for my unAmerican tastes – when I bite, I like to hear the bull bellow. Linda’s hot roast beef and gravy with fries was tops. And Caitlin, thank god, ordered only half a hoagie. The whole thing could have relieved famine in Somalia. There wasn’t any single thing special about Gail & Tina’s, but all the aspects together – atmosphere, food, service, prices – reclined in sublime balance.

Later that day, we took Exit 14 (Rte. 5) from the Ohio Turnpike. A large motel, crouching behind the curve of the exit, looked abandoned in the middle of an acre of grass. Asked about where to get supper, the clerk suggested “the Wrangler, up by the Marathon gas station.” I zipped past the Marathon without seeing anything, but Linda spotted a movable-letter sign set way back from the road – “Home Cooking Restaurant Open 7 Days.” Nothing about any Wrangler.

We found an unadorned cube tacked onto the left rear corner of the station, made of those cinderblocks with hunks jutting out to provide “texture.” Inside, it was fiercely ugly, the ceiling 12 feet high and lost in shadows, the end wall grasping five small wooden shelves, some with uninteresting bits of pseudo-antiques, others empty.

I liked it immediately. There’s ugliness and ugliness: There’s the unforgivable corporate non-personality of a CVS or Toys R Us – bland hideousness ballooned into terminal insult. There’s also the  forgivable (if creepy) ugliness of places without a smidgen of aesthetic taste that accrue useless objects that hem them in as they grow old.

Finally – and rarely – there’s the coordinated ugliness of a place where the occupiers have refused to prettify a bad architectural deal, allowing the personality of its inhabitants to provide character and warmth. Character and warmth suffused the Wrangler. Greetings, cross-talk and well-wishing slithered from table to table in an anaconda of joyousness.

We sat at the counter, facing the grill. The gods of road food must have inspired our choice. Little things seemed so idiosyncratic that I thought we had wormholed sideways. My Lipton’s teabag was lifted from a form of dispenser I’d never seen before and can’t describe, and my tea was served with both a cup of hot water and one of those little metal pots holding scalding water for a second cup. Gallon pitchers of some dark liquid – coffee? syrup? – stood near one end of the counter, covered with shrink wrap.

And my god, the prices: $4.39 for two pork chops, green beans, home fries and a roll. How could anyone, even 35 years ago, make a profit on that? The chops were thin but grilled not five seconds over or under. (The beans were reduced to Midwestern moosh, as always. Ah well.) For dessert, Linda got a bodacious slice of supreme chocolate cream pie. But everything paled before the home fries: the largest quantity and the second-best I’ve ever eaten (next to the Dixfield Opera House).

The Wrangler’s cook, an overweight woman in shorts, kept to an almost metronomic personal rhythm. She plopped the home fries – pre-boiled and smashed into such tiny pieces I mistook them at first for onions – onto the grill and poured a dollop of oil directly into them. Then she stirred and turned them with the surety and concentration of a Zen master. She didn’t just slap the chops and grilled sandwiches like bad children, she levered them up and placed them precisely where they ought to be. I spent the whole meal smiling at her quiet, confident intensity.

Finally (for this episode of the Gustatory Roundup), there’s the Antler Bar in Pentwater, Michigan – the only place in that lovely little tourist town with food worth eating. I’d gotten the wet burrito in the past. This time, eating with our friends Nan and Will, we ordered chicken and steak fajitas. Caitlin got the nachos with cheese (hold the jalapeños).

If you like your Mexican mouth-singeing hot, you might be disappointed. But the balance of spicing was perfect, the proportions gigantic (Cait doggy-bagged her nachos and lived on them for the next two days), the prices around $6 for most platters. And the pool table: In my first round of 8-ball in ten years, if Cait hadn’t scratched the 8, she would have had me.

Best yet, as of today, July 10, 2022, the Antler still lives. Go there – now!

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