Another Lowell institution is the Four Sisters Owl on Appleton Street. This 1940 Worcester Lunch car, which has been there since 1951, has been owned and operated by the Shanahan family since 1982.
The funky vintage interior features wonderfully bright colors, and the food is well above average. The pancakes are fluffy, and the corned-beef hash hearty and tasty. But the star of the menu features slabs of house-baked Virginia ham carved off the bone, complemented by a tangy hollandaise in a fabulous eggs Benedict.
According to Martha Shanahan, the restaurant is a gathering place for politicos, and during last year’s US senatorial race, both Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren made stops there. When Governor Deval Patrick kicked off his 2010 reelection campaign, he chose the Owl to do it.
Shanahan herself made news that day when she, a veteran waitress who said she had never dropped a dish, stumbled and dumped a full tray at the governor’s feet. He took it in stride and helped her pick up the mess.
The Owl has seen its share of Hollywood as well. When “The Fighter” filmed in Lowell in 2009, many cast and crew members visited. Mickey O’Keefe, the Lowell cop who played himself in the film, is a regular (his wife, Donna, is a longtime employee), and Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, the subjects of the film, frequently enjoy breakfast there.
Although the old factories are partly responsible for the plethora of diners, not all of the classics are in urban areas. Pat’s Diner on Bridge Road in Salisbury (Worcester Lunch Car #824, from 1950) is a customary stop for summer beachgoers. The exterior sports nontraditional siding, but the interior is vintage enough to be chosen as a stand-in for a South Boston greasy spoon in a recent Whitey Bulger documentary filmed by the Discovery Channel.
Another popular spot is the Agawam Diner on Route 1 in Rowley. Cultrera said it’s one of the first diners he remembers visiting during road trips in the ’70s, and is the last of four diners owned by the Galanis family to carry the Agawam name.
From the gleaming stainless steel exterior to the Formica counter and red vinyl booths, this 1954 structure offers the quintessential ’50s diner experience. It was built by the Fodero Dining Car Co. of Bloomfield, N.J., which had become famous for its slick all-stainless steel panels and details like the winged clock.
The Agawam serves up a full menu of hearty breakfast and lunch entrées, but to locals, the place is synonymous with pie. On any given day, there are more than a dozen treats to choose from, each made daily in-house.
Of special note is the bizarre, yet delicious, angel pie: vanilla custard inside chocolate cake baked in a pie crust topped with a truckload of whipped cream. Paired with a cup of coffee, it’s worth stopping for any time of day.
Kristen Nyberg and Jill Rose run the blog North Shore Dish at www.northshoredish.com.