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Old-time cook, timeless fare

After decades running the diner, he knows his potatoes and turkeys

Steve (left) and Charlie Turner have made no changes to their family’s 60-year-old recipes. Steve (left) and Charlie Turner have made no changes to their family’s 60-year-old recipes. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Jan Ellen Spiegel
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2010

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SPENCER — Charlie Turner is doing the same grunt work he’s done just about every day for more than 60 years — cutting potatoes. “Potatoes are my friends,’’ says the white-haired 75-year-old.

Potatoes, to the tune of 800 pounds a week, have been a mainstay of Charlie’s Diner Bar & Grill, named for this Charlie’s father, since it opened in 1950. Manufactured by Worcester Lunch Car, plate number 816, with 12 stools and four booths, it has the same fare now that it had then.

The potatoes wind up in hash, home and french fries (hand cut, skins on), in salad, and in chowder, for which he boils them first, then cuts them while hot into big chunks he calls “el moose-o.’’ He says it makes the bowls creamier. “If you don’t know how to cut the potatoes, you shouldn’t make chowder.’’

Charlie’s original car is now expanded, attached to a bar and grill with modern booths, a flat-screen TV, and a slicked-up menu served most nights until 11. Son Steve, now the owner, is in charge while Charlie mans the kitchen in back. The renovation came about because the diner was kicked off its Worcester location in 2003 by the property owner, who wanted to develop it. The Turners moved the diner to Spencer and reopened three years later. Today’s menu has all the classics plus new-fangled dishes such as butternut squash ravioli and fried clams with homemade tartar sauce. After a star turn on the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,’’ the proprietors are walking a delicate line between classic and modern — open early mornings for the locals and late, too, for them and travelers on the nearby Mass. Pike.

“The customer kind of sends you in a certain direction,’’ says Steve, working a sizzling griddle of breakfast staples in the old diner late one morning. So do accidental deliveries. One was a case of wraps, sent mistakenly by a distributor. Steve made sandwiches and they’ve been on the menu ever since. And while Charlie’s may be serving Caesar salads and making jalapeno mayonnaise, Steve is mindful of why people come. “Bacon,’’ he says, dead serious. “Two over-easy, bacon, and home fries. Number one seller.’’

The small staff of half a dozen knows the regulars and just how much ribbing they’ll take. Among the vintage touches are the original menu boards, still up and still offered; only prices have changed. As for the food and how it’s prepared, some of it is Charlie’s secret. “Oh, I can’t tell you that one,’’ he says of the Friday-only mac and cheese. “If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.’’

Well, it has elbow macaroni.

Charlie is more forthcoming about his turkey. The diner goes through a couple of 30-pounders a day. They’re roasted with water in the pan, covered with foil. No salt, no pepper, no spices. “Zippo,’’ Charlie says. “I let the turkey do all the work.’’ Drippings become eight to nine gallons of fresh gravy a week, which in turn goes on the turkey, into the chowder (along with white American cheese, potatoes, onions, haddock, cream, and milk), and pot pies. Thursday’s corned beef special, boiled for 4 1/2 hours in water later used to cook cabbage, has a second life as the signature corned beef hash, ground with potatoes, mixed with onions and a bit of egg, and fried on the griddle.

Hash is what neighbor Kim Johnson always orders, with eggs on top. Her husband, Mark, has his usual kielbasa omelet, and son Erik, 8, is attacking two chocolate chip pancakes, each the size of his head. Ryan, 10, is downing a roast beef sandwich. Kyle, 12, is a little under the weather, so has toast rather than his favorite omelet and home fries. “I like how it’s old-fashioned,’’ he says.

Regular Barbara Boudreau is at the counter with beef stew and coffee. “They see me coming, they make fresh decaf,’’ she says. “Steve’s got ’em all trained.’’

And over in the new part, Deb Perkins points to the turkey in her wrap. “That’s real,’’ she says.

So are the muffins, made daily along with biscuits for shortcake when Charlie gets in each morning at 4:10. After a while, he reveals other secrets: pineapple in the cole slaw; bourbon in the steak tips; both fresh and canned tomatoes in the house sauce. Very little salt, if any.

Charlie approves of the new menu. He likes the Caesar salad. “Even that jalapeno stuff we put on cheeseburgers,’’ he says. “I can go for that.’’

But the classics will stay. “Where else can you go for this stuff?’’ he asks.

Charlie’s Diner Bar & Grill, 5 Meadow Road, Spencer, 508-885-4033.

Jan Ellen Spiegel can be reached at janellenspiegel@gmail.com.