I came prepared for disappointment. Twenty years following the diner industry has honed a healthy skepticism. I cringe more than I'd like when listening to people's plans for their newly acquired diners, and while the idea of the Miss Newport Diner spending another day decaying in a Salisbury, Massachusetts storage yard hardly warmed my soul, the thought of it landing in the hands of an inept steward made me shudder.
Approaching the freshly opened Miss Mendon Diner as we did from the west got this experience off on a sour note. Coming from that direction, I might have missed it if I didn't know it was there. Its new owner, Kevin Meehan, placed this gleeming red gem of a Worcester Lunch Car at least 100 yards back from the road, behind several rows of new cars sold from his multi-brand dealership aptly named Imperial Motors. Obscured in this vast expanse of vehicular topography, the diner elbows out a comparatively small footprint in the shadow of three towering structures, two showrooms and a professional building. In our initial confusion, we pulled into the professional building's lot which doesn't connect to the diner's lot. So, we had to drive back out to Route 16 and enter further up, back-tracking through the maze-like dealer lot. Not a great way to make a first impression.
However, once through the door, our impression began to change. What we didn't see put us further at ease. No posters of Marilyn Monroe. No fiberglass statue of Elvis. In fact, except for some of the music, the diner assaulted us with little doo-wop anything. (Big sigh of relief.) Maybe someone did their homework for once.
We did see, of course, that controversial newly laid tile floor previewed on the Miss Mendon's Facebook page. The original Miss Newport Diner sported a charming and unusual tile pattern of muted, multi-toned, and intricate hand-laid checkerboard squares of mustard brown and blue. The owners claimed that the move damaged the original floor necessitating the replacement, but I wondered why they didn't make a better attempt to match the original palette than applying a Florentine terra cotta. However, I'll write this off as the quibbling of a preservationist, one of maybe a dozen who'd even notice. Overall, my friend and I walked further inside the packed little diner impressed with the work performed.
The renovation replaced a few other "features" as well, including the original pink laminate ceiling panels with a neutral tan, but on balance, the work mostly enhanced the diner's luster. Finishing touches like reupholstered booths (tastefully embroidered with the diner's new logo), original re-chromed counter stools, and historically sensitive lighting (a vast improvement over the diner's previous glaring fluourescents) indicated a sincere appreciation for quality and architectural value.
Of course, all that only makes it a pretty museum piece. People go to diners for the food. My friend and I had already got a preview of the menu thanks to the diner's spiffy new website, and a few more red flags popped up. Coffee: $1.95(!). Turkey club: nine bucks! We're talking New York prices here, not sleepy little Mendon. Where I now live in the Philadelphia area, boutique delis generally charge no more than about seven dollars for the same turkey club. Coffee averages about $1.35 or so.
Oddly enough, the menu advertised its homemade apple pie for only $2.95. Given the prices of everything else, I would have expected to see a slice going for closer to five dollars.
In general, I have to say that the prices in general were well above average for this style of diner in this type of locale. For instance a bowl of soup at the Maine Diner in the touristy town of Wells, Maine is $3.50. At the Miss Mendon, a cup of chicken noodle is four dollars. Generally, all the diner's prices compared with an upscale operation in a metropolitan or tourist market — fine if the quality matches the cost — but risky if your market expects diners to serve an inexpensive meal. Time will tell.
On this visit, I ordered big. I was hungry and curious. The most courteous waitress took my order of a cup of clam chowder, a side of homemade corned beef hash, the chicken pot pie with what ended up being a side of brussel sprouts — a first for me. Never before have I seen this vegetable in any of the 670 diners I've so far visited.
The chowder: Excellent. Different. Not creamy, but thick and amply stocked with chunks of clams and potatoes. The corned beef hash was almost worth the three hundred miles I traveled to get some. And the classic chicken pot pie also satisfied well on this frigid New England day. Even the brussel sprouts fit nicely into this experience, as tender and tasty as they proved to be.
Naturally, I went for the apple pie after all that, judging as I do a diner's entire dessert menu with this fundamental item, but sadly, it let me down. The menu claims it's homemade, so perhaps they need to find a better recipe.
The coffee, however, was perfect.
Final tally: Lunch for two, including tip, forty dollars. Ouch.
My friend and I finally had the opportunity to speak with one of the owners of the business, Jennifer O'Donovan, whose husband Michael comes with more than 20 years of experience steeped in the food service business. Despite a resume that included stints at Panera Bread, Dunkin Brands, and his own restaurant in Florida, Michael was a stranger to the world of diners until he met up with Kevin Meehan. Jennifer told me that she and her husband had no experience with diners, and in fact, rarely — if ever — frequented them. Most of their research before taking on this new challenge took place on the internet.
The end result of this cyber-research is mostly positive. Jennifer proudly told me that they sought to provide "tasteful" experience, and one that didn't involve cluttering up the place with cheap ephemera as we too-often see in so many recently opened diners. The Miss Mendon also sells its share of souvenirs, but she said that "We're not the Hard Rock Café." An admirable sentiment, but charging a ten-spot for a Westford China logo-imprinted coffee mug pushes that claim a bit. We once offered authentic Victor mugs for half that price. It's advertising, folks. Get it out there.
Jennifer told us that though they had no previous diner experience, their combined history in the food service would make diner operation easy. Well, I've heard that one many times before. Diners, though simple in concept, can chew up and spit out even the most confident and resourced restaurant types, stripping them of their money, pride, and one-time love of the genre. Anyone who ventures into this meat grinder without thoroughly exposing themselves to searing heat of the diner kitchen does themselves no favors. Any seasoned veteran of this trade will tell you so.
In the end, we came away with an eye-opening and generally pleasing visit to this grand example of Worcester Lunch Car's capabilities. For the O'Donovan's with only two weeks into the game, so far so good. For now, let's hope it continues, and let's all be grateful that the former Miss Newport lives on in another New England location where, frankly, it belongs.
The Miss Mendon Diner serves a full menu seven days a week. Located at 16 Uxbridge Road in Mendon, Massachusetts, it sits within the expansive Imperial Motors complex. For more information, call 508-634-3000. Visit their music-filled website at http://www.missmendondiner.com.