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Day Four: Versailles to Bardstown, Kentucky

Keeneland is to horse racing what St. Andrew’s is to golf.

Legions of stylish white-haired ladies show up daily only to admire the steeds in the warm-up rings, never going near the betting windows. Almost all the staff are older folks who work a couple months for a couple bucks and the joy of being near the breed. Best yet, beyond the Keeneland enclave, horse farms unfold as far as the eye can see.

We secure for $5 a table in The Equestrian Room, spreading out Racing Forms and bet sheets amid late-morning coffees.

Near the finish line, Doug finds a dime. “Rig deal,” says Polly, “I found a $20 bill at the window. The clerk told me not to even think about trying to find out whose it was.” It is a harbinger. With fewer than a dozen visits to any track, Polly has a sharp sense of handicapping. This day, her success is almost fictional, two trifectas (picking which horses will finish 1-2-3 in their exact order) and a horse in the money in every race except two. Slicksters with gold chains and fistfuls of 100’s start looking over her shoulder. Betting almost timidly, she wins nearly $260. Betting many of same horses, less daringly, Doug pockets about $20, covering the Equestrian Room’s tab for a superb lunch with Maker’s Mark pudding for dessert.

We are still emotionally high when we reach Lawrenceburg’s Joe Blackburn Bridge, a third of a mile long, 175 feet above the Kentucky River. Doug parks and walks out to photograph both it and the 275-foot Young’s High Railroad Bridge just to its south. Joe Blackburn, in the shape of an “S” and here since 1932, quivers with each passing car. Doug is glad very glad, to be off this bridge too far.

In Bardstown, we check into Wilson’s Motel, second-oldest in Kentucky. Our hosts descend from those for whom Cornell University is named.

Dagwood’s rejects us. When we request a non-smoking section, it is as if we had spat on the flag. During the dinner hour, it enforces a minimum higher than Joe Blackburn’s bridge. We don’t even say good-bye.

Now we tiptoe up to the stylish, flagstoned Kurt’s at the city limits, fearing that Dagwood’s demeanor speaks for all Bardstown. But Kurtz’s is all non-smoking and honored to serve us dessert and iced tea. Racks upon racks of fresh-baked pies hover along a back wall, served at a gracious pace by a young red-headed waitress.

Kurt’s has brochures for tours of the Maker’s Mark distillery, about 20 miles up in the hills. But it’s off Route 62 and not a practical diversion, Doug says, as then it’s “lights out” at the second-oldest motel in Kentucky.

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Day Off: Lexington, KY

We have a cousin in Lexington and another in Cincinnati, sisters. It had been 10 years since we saw Cincinnati Lynn and at least 25 since we’d laid eyes on Lexington Kathy. Lynn drove down to join us; Kathy couldn’t decide which Lexington restaurant was best for dinner.

Tentatively, as the supposed uninformed visitors, we asked “Would you mind driving the eight miles out to Versailles and we’ll eat at Kessler’s?” We had the same waitress as the night before; dinner delighted everyone.

Then Doug suggested: “How about we take our desserts and go finish this off on the porch at Rose Hill?” It was an October twilight, temperature about 70. Traffic trickled by on Route 62 and the breeze tickled leaves from their Trees. The porch was decorated for Halloween. Ghosts of holidays past were evoked as wicker chairs crackled and the swing sighed. One guy, three gals, four desserts, a pitcher of lemon ice water and an evaporating bottle of Maker’s Mark. Twenty-five years passed by in two hours, and two hours passed by in a wink.

A stranger stepped onto the porch and this is what he said: “You folks look like you’re having a real good time.”

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Day Four: Washington Court House, Ohio to Versailles, Kentucky

Ohio once had three communities called Washington; this county seat had added “Court House” to distinguish itself from the rest.

It is now distinguished by several murals by an artist named Harry Ayshen. Two downtown illustrated a fire hall and a railroad station. Another to the south, billboard-sized, had a countryside scene so detailed and authentic that it seemed almost like a mirror or window, only its golden hues setting it apart from the land it depicted on this gray day.

Route 62 southward presents a smooth, broad two-lane. At New Market, a roadside house appeared to have been abandoned in good condition and then overgrown with vines. At Macon, we spotted an immaculate tobacco barn; thereafter, it seemed increasingly difficult to find no-smoking sections in restaurants.

We reached Ripley a bit before Sunday noon. A riverside saloon, three yellow stories with stained-glass windows, overlooked two barge lash-ups sliding down the Ohio. The door was open; a flier heralded a “lingerie show” at another saloon, two nights earlier.

“C’mon in,” bid a fellow holding court at a round oaken table.

“We were just looking for maybe a coffee until the antique barns opened,” we said.

“Got some instant,” he said. “No charge. We’re not open yet.

Can’t open ’til noon.” A few people sipping eye-openers around the bar seemed to contradict That prohibition.

“You’re not with the liquor board, are you?” he asked.

We ordered a bourbon, tipping the waitress its estimated price.

He brought a three-pound photo album documenting how he’d retrieved This place from ruin. It was called Snapper’s now.

“I’ve got another place a ways out of town,” he said. Doug recognized the name from the flier. “How’d the lingerie show go?” he asked.

For one moment, Mr. Jerry Jones, Host of Ripley, lost his composure. “How’d you hear about that?” he said quickly.

Doug pointed toward the sign.

“You’re very observant,” he said. “You sure you’re not with the liquor board?”

“I promise,” said Doug. “Anyway, it’s past noon.”

“Call again,” said the Host of Ripley. “Can’t figure out why you want to go to El Paso, though. I been there.”

Crossing the Ohio on a shaky two-lane bridge from Aberdeen, Ohio, we beheld the new paddlewheeler Mississippi Queen, tied up in downtown Maysville, KY, passengers debarking for a tour.

Maysville and Rosemary Clooney hold each other in equal esteem. She was born here and many of her family still live along the river. A showpiace carries her name, suitably ornate in the style of 1930s movie palaces, across the street from a fully restored Victorian three-story.

We pressed into Kentucky on the narrow roadways where Route 62 was born, a mere pencil line on the map, often with the speed limit 45. We wove around tobacco barns and Mail Pouch ads through the hamlet of Oddville (no post office) and on to Cynthiana, where a manufacturing plant startled us with first with its size and then with its product: Toyotas.

From here, Route 62 tracks due southwest, as if at odd with Lexington. Canopies of trees and guardrails of horse fences convey it along “Horse Alley” into the photogenic Midway, where a rail line splits the center of town, rows of shops on either side.

We paused at a restaurant recommended by AAA. It had nothing to our taste. Blindly, we turned to a little Versailles storefront, Kessler’s 1891.

It was entertaining an art exhibit this evening, but gladly satisfied our modest needs at dinner time. Our puny tab could not have made it worth their while- As we settled into slumber in the luxury of Julie’s Room at the 1823 Rose Hill Inn, we felt considerably in Kessler’s debt.

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Day Three: Canton to Washington Court House, Ohio

Overnight rain had diminished to drizzle and fog seeped up from the ground. We detoured through the haunting village of Canal Fulton, then zeroed in on Mrs. Voder’s Kitchen in Mount Hope. The inclement weather enhanced the atmosphere, the farms gleaming whitely against the leaden sky as the Amish gathered for the weekly horse auction.

Mrs. Voder’s rack was brim-full of Amish straw hats. Doug added his Buffalo Bisons baseball cap, which stood out like a yarmulke in Vatican City.

Mrs. Voder’s staff struggled mightily to replenish the buffet against the horde of hungry horse traders. There was bacon, sausage, pancakes, eggs, muffins and the peculiar dish called scrapple (contents unknown, probably just as well). We ate our fill and then some, still a paltry portion compared to the consumption of our fellow diners in dungarees.

Then we left Mount Hope to convene with the Amish of Wilmot and Berlin. Within minutes, we realized our folly. Continue reading Day Three: Canton to Washington Court House, Ohio

Doug & Polly Smith, Photographed in Grand Island, NY, 2000.

Route 62: Tales from the Other Road

It only took us 17 years, but here’s Doug & Polly Smith’s epic road-trip account of their travels down Route 62. This is the unedited version, as it is the only version we seem to have on hand in digital format. Some of the text may still contain typos left over from the OCR software we used at the time. Doug was only just beginning to enter the digital age in 1999. 

By Doug and Polly Smith


If the setting sun shone across Route 66, its shadow would he Route 62. A mystery even to those who live at its curb. Route 62 emerges from the mists of Niagara Falls to meander 2,315 miles (more or less) through 11 states to the Rio Grande at F-l Paso.

It has Northeast smokestacks, Amish farms, tobacco barns, race horses, rugged crosses, cotton fields, oil rigs, cattle drives, mountain passes and the Border Patrol. It takes two bridges to throw it across the Mississippi River.

A thoroughfare for underdogs, it has lured us all our lives.

Polly Smith, conscience of this account, has given it a name: “The Other Road-” With all deference to “The Mother Road,” anything Route 66 can do. The Other Road can do better. This is its story, and ours ..

We aimed to drive it when we were 62 but as time passed, we were paving The Other Road only with good intentions. Spurred to action by a minor health matter, we planned to transit 62 in the fall of ’99.

We checked football schedules, so as to avoid traffic at Ohio State, Kentucky and Arkansas Universities along the route. We asked a cloister of nuns (we are not Catholic) to pray that those we would meet would be glad we had come. Then, on a wet October morn, packed with clothes for three seasons, a carton of tour-guides and a medicinal bottle of Marker’s Mark bourbon, we were off. We had made just one reservation, at the Rose Hill Inn in Versailles, KY. Coming back would have to take care of itself.

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Day Two: Hubbard to Canton, Ohio

When Doug lived in Youngstown, Ohio, its steel mills glared the smoky red of eternal sunset. World War II troop trains rushed through and Dad had charge of the tracks they trod. To eight-year-old eyes, it seemed like the center of the world.

Now, Youngstown’s twilight was economic. Nonetheless, it would be fun to find the old homestead, 440 Fairgreen. We drive out Belmont Avenue, looking for Fairgreen; after 10 minutes we pass beyond the city limits.

An amused tire clerk with a big, detailed map says that in ‘ Youngstown, street signs vanish, never to be replaced. Continue reading Day Two: Hubbard to Canton, Ohio

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Day One: Niagara Falls to Hubbard, Ohio

A postal clerk named Luis sounded our first “Godspeed,” within sight of the sign that says “Route 62 North Ends.” He stamped the local postmark on “We’re off!” cards to our family and we pledged him a line from El Paso. He was glad we had come.

Route 62 South, begins unannounced, an omen. We started from beneath a 20-foot plastic swirly cone called “Twist of the The MIST” frozen custard stand. For the first 150 miles, we will try to see familiar territory through unfamiliar eyes.

Historic icons abut Route 62 South — the former Bell Aircraft plant, blueprint of victory in World War II, and the organists’ origin, the Wurlitzer plant, now an architecture of lost chords. Continue reading Day One: Niagara Falls to Hubbard, Ohio

Doug & Polly Smith, Photographed in Grand Island, NY, 2000.

Remembering Doug Smith, king of the roadside

One of the more rewarding parts of my work with Roadside Magazine has steadily turned into one of its saddest. A magazine about classic diners and other roadside attractions started while in my 30s predictably turned out readers older than myself, who often became an invaluable resource for us. They directed me to many hidden gems, and their colorful stories about the era where the diner reigned as queen of the roadside gave urgency to our mission. Members of this generation became some of our biggest fans, and some became good friends.

Yesterday, I had the sad honor of attending a memorial service for the dearest of these friends, Doug Smith. If you don’t recall the name, you might when you combine it with that of his indefatigable wife, Polly, his co-pilot of nearly 58 years. Continue reading Remembering Doug Smith, king of the roadside

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Hope you like Applebee’s

Growing regulations, hikes in the minimum wage, and a dearth of ambitious talent is going to wipe the landscape of the mom and pop restaurant.

Instead, Semmelhack was just looking at his staff — people he hangs out with on weekends, people whose livelihoods he supplies, some of his closest friends — and all he could see was the money each one of them was costing him, flashing in front of him like a video-game score. “I knew right then,” he says, “we had to shut it all down.”

Source: Why America’s Restaurant Industry Is in a Bubble About to Burst – Thrillist

I’m Silver Topped Out

Now the Silver Top becomes the latest diner purchased that breaks our cardinal rule for such things: Don’t buy a diner unless you have a location for it. While the Silver Top itself shows that the rule is no absolute, the tale this diner has spun since its removal from a still-empty lot in Providence in 2002 continues with its new owners, the Cerrone family.

First, I congratulate the Cerrone family, but not with the joy I’d typically express with this transition. The Silver Top saga, which could fill a good size book, involves characters and issues on both sides that all failed to properly steward this historic structure. At the end of the day, I have always sided with the interests of preservation, and between the Cities of Providence and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and Pat Brown, the tug of war has almost wrecked this fine building, and I see plenty of blame to go around.

It all started with the late Mayor Buddy Cianci’s plan to turn the industrial area around the Silver Top’s home into Providence’s version of Boston’s Back Bay, and the diner did not fit into this scheme. The diner’s actual owner at that time, Bernie Buoncevello told Roadside he sat in on a meeting with the mayor, his development people, and Daniel Zilka, who at that time had already begun his tax-receipt-creation scheme of building a diner graveyard by pawning off phony tax receipts to unsuspecting donors using self-created appraisals.

Luckily for Bernie and Pat, who ran the diner for him, the city of Pawtucket offered of a piece of land (albeit in remote neighborhood) for Pat to install the diner. To help out, renown restaurant architect Morris Nathanson offered his services, and the city would put up money to get Pat started. When Buoncevello gifted the diner, everything seemed to fall into place.

Things soon went south from there. At the first neighborhood meeting after the diner moved which I attended (no one from Dan’s Diner Salvage bothered to show up in support), the residents clearly rejected the idea of a diner in their midst operating the late-night shift, hours that the Silver Top famously plied and that Pat wanted to continue. Breakfast and lunch, fine, but no graveyard. No one would budge.

One should keep in mind that I-95 had carved up the neighborhood long ago. It hadn’t seen any real development in twenty to thirty years and in my opinion at the time, I believed a good, well-run late night diner would likely provide a stabilizing influence on the area. Pat had a reputation for toughness, and tolerated no shenanigans at the Providence location.

Before long, Nathanson bowed out citing intransigence on Pat’s part. Then depending on who you speak with, city either granted or loaned Pat money for development costs. Months turned to years with nothing happening. Pat objected to the plans provided by the city’s development office and still insisted on opening late night. The city eventually demanded its money back and the matter headed to court, where it festered for nearly ten years.

Sparing the reader the gory details of the court proceedings, where Pawtucket hardly seemed to act in good faith, and Rhode Island being Rhode Island, Pat never really stood a chance, especially since she had no money to fight this. She relied mostly on generous pro bono legal services. In the end, the diner ended up on the auction block.

Before auction, the city retained Richard Gutman to provide it with an appraisal, who valued the diner at about $25,000. When I saw this, it raised a red flag. Richard had recently retired from his position at the diner Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum, and hadn’t publicly involved himself in the restoration of any diner for the better part of a decade. In that decade, I’ve watched the market for vintage diners collapse.

Out across the landscape, one can now find a dozen or more failed diner projects, with some well-kept units sitting high on cribbing, going nowhere fast. In light of this and the fact that it has become nearly impossible to restore and profitably operate a small vintage diner — especially in the Northeast — a five-figure appraisal bespeaks of a certain ignorance of the market’s current realities.

Hog River Grill/Aetna Diner
Hog River Grill/Aetna Diner — free for the taking.

In Hartford right now stands the Aetna Diner, which represents the most beautiful realization of diner design in the history of Paramount diners and probably of the entire industry. It closed over ten years ago, and the owner cannot give it away. He wants to tear it down, but in an unusual twist, the city won’t let him. As much as I would hate to see the Aetna demolished, the literal definition of worthlessness is something that no one wants.

If the magnificence of the Aetna has no value, then where does Gutman get off valuing the near-wreck of the Silver Top at $25,000? It naturally leads to the next question of who will lead the diner’s restoration?

Had Pawtucket come to me, someone who intimately followed and documented the diner market for nearly 30 years, I would have told them the diner was worth fifteen dollars, or whatever anyone happened to have in their wallet at the time they walked into City Hall. Get rid of it.

The Cerrones got fleeced, pure and simple. The Silver Top was a twenty-dollar flip job any way you cut it. The diner will likely be more of a liability than an asset for whatever restaurant type they have in mind. It will cost them close to $300,000 to complete a proper restoration. They could instead build a well-designed, code-compliant, modern restaurant space for about half that amount.

Pat fought the good fight. I know Pat and consider her a friend of Roadside. She’s currently laying claim to the Silver Top name, but my advice to her is to move on. It’s over. She’ll never be able to defend that claim anyway.

She probably should have stopped this fight long before this. I feel for her, mainly because I know how it feels to see your life’s dream get taken from you, but considering the ultimate cost of this battle, the hours lost, the money spent, and the diversion from other missed opportunities, just get on with life.

And if you can, get the hell out of Rhode Island.