Take a bite (or 10) out of March
From egg-soaked toast to gravy-drenched pot roast, comfort food can lift spirits through the last blasts of winter. It’s cheap, a little gooey, not too chewy, and its mild, slow-cooked flavor summons memories of home. Count on certain types of establishments to deliver all that, especially diners and family restaurants with roots in the Industrial Age. Their booths and counter stools, paper placemats and bulky china bring their own familiar comfort.
New England, like any place with a past, harbors a dizzying number of such establishments, so this quest is confined only to Massachusetts. Even then, it only skims the surface. So get hungry and remember to bring cash; many comfort-food havens still operate as though credit cards do not exist. And feel free to make counter-recommendations, so to speak, online.
JOE’S DINER, Lee
Norman Rockwell’s 1958 picture of a runaway boy and a police officer sitting at a lunch counter was based on a composite of this beloved diner and a few other local spots. The restaurant, a mere hole-in-the-wall, dates from 1939. But in 1955, back from the Korean War, Joe Sorrentino bought it. Truckers and mill hands filled the small space year-round, joined in summer by Berkshires summer-stock celebs (head shots of Gene Shalit and Danny Aiello are among the fading photos on the walls). Today another Joe (Langlais) owns the place, but the prices and the burgers, the stuffed shells and homemade pies ($2.75, try the banana cream) are still fabulous. The retired Sorrentino often holds court on the customer side of the counter. 85 Center St., 413-243-9756, breakfast $2.25-$7.75, burgers and sandwiches $1.95-$5.95, dinner specials $5.50-$7.25, cash only
KELLY’S DINER, Pittsfield Maryann Carmel has worked at Kelly’s for 39 years, starting right after high school. Now her customers know her children, and she knows theirs. When the Kellys bought the place in 1962, it had been open for about a decade. The brick-and-clapboard building is now dwarfed by the discount stores and fast-food joints crowding around it, but the customers keep coming back for their favorites, especially the best-selling roast turkey dinner. The pot roast can be flaked with a fork, the better to soak up the rich brown gravy. 860 Dalton Ave., 413-442-1875, breakfast $3.50-$6.50, lunch (sandwiches, burgers) $2.60-$6.50, pasta and hot plates $6.50-$8.50, cash only
LOOK RESTAURANT, Leeds Michael Cronin has owned the Look for only 18 of its 50 years, but he has kept the flavor of the original alive. Over the clatter and chatter of a Saturday breakfast rush, Cronin admits he has sneaked a few additions (pecan pancakes, fritattas) past the change-averse clientele in this rural village of Northampton. Comfort dishes make up the daily lunch specials: chicken stew over biscuits, pot roast, meat loaf, and American chop suey, to name a few. “It’s all homemade, too,’’ says Cronin, “even the mashed potatoes.’’ 410 North Main St. (Route 9), 413-584-9850, breakfast $2-$8.50, lunch (sandwiches, burgers, quesadillas, specials) $2.95-$7.95, cash only
MISS FLORENCE DINER, Florence Basking in the neon glow of one of the wildest signs to grace a Worcester Dining Car, Miss Flo still sports a mint interior of dazzling chrome and dizzying tiles. A lineup of winter comfort-food specials rounds out the regular fare: homemade macaroni and cheese, beef stew, chicken pot pie, bread-bowl chili, and shepherd’s pie. The dishes arrive steaming and fragrant, and the homemade pies — try the chocolate cream — are a point of pride. The adjoining Silk City Tap Room is a reminder of Florence’s century-long reign in silk production and silk-thread manufacturing, which ended in 1930. 99 Main St., 413-584-3137, missflorencediner.com, breakfast $1.99-$8.49, lunch (sandwiches, burgers, daily specials) $2.99-$7.99, dinner $5.99-$12
THE HOLLY BARN, Conway This is the rare New England restaurant open only in the off-season (late November-early June). Inside, old farm tools, oxen’s yokes, sleigh runners, and other memorabilia collected by owners Ed and Mary Rose delight newcomers while the regulars swap wisecracks and play cards. But the food is the real show here: Typical offerings display Ed’s skillful touch with meat and seafood — prime rib, fried oysters, baby-back ribs, baked stuffed haddock — all served, by Mary, with two home-cooked sides. It’s worth ordering dessert just for the fresh whipped cream piled on the homemade puddings and pie. Says weekly regular Suzanne Symanski of Hatfield, “It’s like eating at your mother’s house.’’ 176 South Deerfield Road (Route 116), 413-369-4642, $10.95-$19.99, open only Fri-Sat 5-9 p.m., BYOB, cash only
THE OLD TIMER, Clinton The Old Timer dates from 1929, and everything in this cavernous Tudor-revival Irish tavern is original, from the circular wooden booths to the eye hooks in the ceiling where Shermie’s German Midgets once hung upside down from ropes, tootling clarinets and trumpets. Although Jimmy McNally, the octogenarian son of the founder, still serenades Sunday diners, the food claims center stage: comfort entrees include veal Parmesan, fettucine alfredo, and roast turkey. House specialties include the sublime haddock St. James, baked with tomatoes, herbs, and bread crumbs. Baby back ribs pull apart with a fork. The Old Timer is another reason to visit this former mill town, home to the Russian Icon Museum. 155 Church St., 978-365-5980, www.oldtimerrestaurant.com, lunch, dinner plates $7.59-$17.99
HARRY’S RESTAURANT AND DAIRY BAR, Westborough Founded in 1946 and moved to this location in 1969, Harry’s is owned and operated by the second generation of the founding family. This small restaurant with an enormous menu has earned customer loyalty by sticking to home-cooked dishes such as chicken pot pie, made with fresh veggies and a light, puff pastry crust. Seafood is a specialty, says manager Jeanine Sander, who greets all the regulars by first name. The fried haddock lives up to that claim. Thursday is mac ’n’ cheese day, when customers can choose from eight kinds, from Buffalo chicken (chicken tenders, Buffalo sauce) to Hawaiian (Canadian bacon and pineapple), all for $9.99. 149 Turnpike Road (Route 9W), 508-366-8302, breakfast $4.95-$9.95, sandwiches and burgers $4.75-$9.95, fried chicken and seafood $8.95-$19.95, hot plates $9.95-$13.95, cash only
WILSON’S DINER, Waltham This sky-blue Worcester Dining Car has roosted here since 1946, and the metal walls, stamped with the trademark sunrise pattern, still gleam. Now owned by Arthur Karra, who hails from Sparta, Greece, Wilson’s offers old-fashioned American comfort fare along with locanico (sausage), feta, and other Greek specialties. Coffee arrives with the spoon in, the way you picture Robert Mitchum drinking it. The buttermilk pancakes are exceptional. Rice pudding and baked macaroni are also customer favorites, and daily hot specials (broiled haddock, roast beef, beef stew, roast pork) roll on through the week. 507 Main St., 781-899-0760, breakfast $3.50-$8.50, sandwiches, burgers (including fries) $6-$7, specials (weekdays only) $7-$9, cash only.
ANDROS DINER, Belmont At another Greek-American establishment, the Manetas family has been dishing up edible solace here since 1974. Everything is homemade, and chef John Manetas’s American fare, such as chicken pot pie and roast turkey, are toothsome. But the shish kebab and the roast lamb are transcendent, and the egg-lemon soup and the pastichio — long tubes of macaroni, layered with beef, herbs, and cheese and baked with béchamel sauce — is simply transporting. Whatever the dish, portions are generous. 628 Trapelo Road, 617-484-7322, breakfast, lunch, dinner plates $7.35-$14.85
MARSHLAND TOO, Sandwich Skip Cooke, co-owner of this and a smaller sister restaurant (Marshland, Route 6A, Sandwich) and a cook here, points out that there’s very little on the menu outside the comfort category, from buttermilk pancakes to chicken Parmesan. The pancakes are tasty and substantial, the omelets generous and perfectly cooked. Daily lunch-dinner specials, including pot roast, chicken pot pie, roast turkey, shepherd’s pie, and American chop suey, are all big sellers. “But the lobster macaroni-and-cheese, our Friday dinner special [$12.99], is really big.’’ And Marshland regulars are really regular: “Some customers eat here twice a day,’’ Cooke says. 315 Cotuit Road, 508-888-9747, www.marshlandrestaurant.com, breakfast $4.29-$8.29, lunch (sandwiches, seafood) $3.99-$11.99, hot plates, specials $6.99-$9.99
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at email@example.com.