Listening Post: Fine dinering

That's what I'm talkin' about!

Sometimes you get a yen–no one can explain why. The other night, for me, it was fried chicken. And I wanted to eat it, not make it. And coming from farm stock on both sides, KFC would not do, nor would nuggets, or strips or Buffalo wings. Chicken pieces, on the bone, fried. Somehow, in the slow drift of years, this has become a scarce commodity. Once a staple of every diner and mom-and-pop restaurant in the North Country, it’s now the ivory-billed woodpecker of American cuisine. I couldn’t even find it on anyone’s occasional specials menu. Not in reasonable dine-out distance. What happened?

Well, the obvious of course. Fast food franchises and convenience stores have cut the family restaurant off at the knees. And the surviving independent restaurants have mostly moved up the food chain. Plenty of Mediterranean pesto chicken–no summer childhood chicken.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the new diversity in dining–I’m happy as a clam with everything from Thai to Tibetan, Ethiopian to Ecuadoran. But I also want the comfort food I grew up with from time to time. There should still be a place for it on the collective dining menu. So I ask, where do I go to find these one-time commonplaces?…

  • Apple pie, made on the premises, from fruit, not tin, served a la mode or (bonus points) with sharp cheddar cheese
  • Hot meatloaf sandwich with fries (from fresh potatoes) and gravy
  • A less than bucket-sized cup of coffee in a thick-walled china mug
  • Macaroni and cheese–no, I mean actual cheese
  • Homemade baked beans
  • Chocolate cake that didn’t arrive via freezer truck
  • A long formica counter with a couple of old gasbags permanently ensconced at one end, and a mouthy waitress behind
  • An honest milkshake, assembled before your eyes and buzzed up in a stainless steel mixer cup
  • And did I mention fried chicken?

I could go on, but it’s making me really hungry. Not too long ago, you could settle all (or almost all) of the above hankerings at any wide spot in the road. No more.

Add your own contributions to the most-mourned list, and more importantly, your suggestions of where to go to find the dwindling remnants of great diner fare in the North Country, in a comment below. We are making a map of  your recommendations (see below).


Good Eats North Country Diner Map (in progress)


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Good Eats North Country Diner Map in a larger map

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31 Comments on “Listening Post: Fine dinering”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    My favorite is baked chicken. I remember the days I would go with my grandmother to the poultry store where she would pick out a chicken from a cage and its head was chopped off, then the whole chicken would be dumped upside down into a funnel where it would bleed out. She would then take it home and pluck it.
    Sunday dinners were usually chicken dinners. On rare occasions we would drive north out of Detroit to Frankenmuth for a chicken dinner.

  2. Liz McCormick says:

    Go to the Cascade Diner (adjacent to the motel) in Canton! Being a vegetarian I’m unsure of the availability of fried chicken, but if they serve it, its good! Fantastic egg and cheese sandwiched, great grilled cheese, the standard friday fish fry and a milkshake machine that looks as old as the diner itself. The staff is wonderful too, go more than twice and they’ll remember your order!

  3. Pam Yurgartis says:

    I have found mac & real cheese (at least on Fridays), real chocolate cake (sometimes w/ peanut butter frosting), formica counter w/ regulars, and maybe more on your list at Cheryl’s Diner by the Potsdam airport. A chocolate milkshake needs to be a black & white, right? – vanilla ice cream & chocolate syrup.

  4. Neal Burdick says:

    I would like to know where (or if) one can still get a breakfast of a mountain range of scrambled eggs, a couple of foothills of hash browns, and four (at least) triangles of underdone wheat toast, with a Kraft fruit jellies caddy and a bottle of ketchup close at hand.

  5. Byron Whitney says:

    If you want a real milkshake served in a tall glass and with the left over portion in the stainless steel mixer cup go to Mom`s School House in West Potsdam. Only since she`s from New England it`s called a frappe. She also does real macaroni and cheese when she serves it. I believe the pies are baked on the premises as well. I`ve heard the place is for sale so get out there soon. As for fried chicken in a restaurant, the best I`ve had and the last I`ve been able to find is at Mrs. Rowe`s Family Restaurant in Staunton, VA. On the daily menu along with some of the other items you mention is southern pan fried chicken.

  6. Nicey McPhillips says:

    For truly fabulous milkshakes, I recommend Main Street Ice Cream Parlor in Chestertown. My favorite is coffee malted. It is served in the perfect milk shake glass that we all remember as children and the stanless milkshake container so that you can enjoy every last drop.

  7. ADKinLA says:

    It sounds like most of the comfort food you listed could be satisfied by the Noon Mark in Keene. Great, great pie and a lot of other comfort food (with chicken that is fried). There are still places around I think!

  8. Dale says:

    ADKinLA: my car won’t drive by the Noonmark without turning in, and my feet won’t take me away from the table without a piece of pie, and maybe a whole pie to take home. But alas, the two-hour drive.

    Byron–thanks for the tip. Never been to the School House and it’s ten minutes from home.

    Pam–haven’t been to Cheryl’s lately, but it was their mac and cheese I was thinking of when I wrote this.

    Liz–the Cascade is a super stop. Stupidly, I rarely brave the trip across town at noon. Busy, busy, busy. But I have a lunch date there Monday. Yay!

    Dale Hobson, NCPR

  9. Jim Benvenuto says:

    +1 for Cheryl’s. Great beer-battered haddock sandwich on Fridays.

    Neal: Try Dawn’s in beautiful downtown St. Regis Falls for breakfast.

  10. Phil says:

    For a real milkshake made in a metal container with excellent ice cream (better, many think, than B & J’s, Haagen Daas, etc.) before your eyes, try Stewarts. I know their chain of stores doesn’t quite reach to Potsdam, but there’s one in Indian Lake.

    As for apple pie made with real apples, Mrs. Smith in Charlton makes delicioius ones, as well as many other fruit varieties. In 2010 her farm stand bakery sold 63,000 pies! They are very good.

  11. Jim says:

    Ditto the Cascade, the Silver Leaf between DeKalb Jct and Richville has fried chicken on the regular menu. For a classic shake “Good ole Wishey’s” in Croghan is hard to beat.

  12. connie says:

    Mom’s Shoolhouse in West Potsdam – mac & cheese, great potato salad, and the best burgers I’ve had in the North Country. Just the atmosphere is comfort food.

  13. Joe says:

    Try Gary’s Restaurant in Lowville next to the Town Hall Theater – a local institution for over 30 years. You’ll like it. If you’re dissatisfied in any way I’ll pick up the check.

  14. Michael Greer says:

    Wow! What a list! Thanks to Dale for posing the question we all think about now and then.

  15. Pete says:

    Gary’s in Lowville has very good food.

    If you want more of the old-time local diner atmosphere, go to Lloyds of Lowville. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll be they have fried chiclen, at least occasionally as a special. They have real fresh baked pies and probably some of the other things on Dale’s list as well.

    If you are in Speculator, try King of the Frosties. The place has changed ownership from when I was a kid, but it basically looks about the same, and the food is good.

  16. kc says:

    I had some of that good, homemade food at the Meadows just outside of Canton but, I haven’t eaten there in a few years. The Cascade Diner in Canton has food that tastes real and is a great deal better than the place looks. Also, Stewarts Shops are great for ice cream products and they almost always have pristine bathrooms. (My granddaughter told me that and it is so!)
    A long islander who frequents the North Country.

  17. Joe says:

    it’s been a while, but I remember:

    For breakfast: The Golden Unicorn in Great Bend,

    for home-cooked meal, the Italian-American Club is open to the public for lunch, on Bellew Ave down from the fairgrounds

    and finally for dinner, atmosphere at the Crystal Restuarant in the square of Watertown hasn’t changed in a century.

  18. One thing that I badly miss is a good FISH FRY.

    There used to be a great place here in Glens Falls (Jolly John’s) but that closed several years ago. I don’t know of any other good ones in this area.

  19. Mac and cheese: Bean’s Country Store on Route 9L in Queensbury.

    Milkshake: Rob and Debs on Dix Ave. in Glens Falls.

  20. Barb says:

    The Homestead, on the edge of Plattsburgh, everythings homemade, I’m pretty sure they do fried chicken and the homemade pies alone are worth the hour drive for me . If you go on Saturday, you may be treated to an impromptu performance by the local barbershop quartet that has breakfast there. DJ’s Rustic restaurant in Saranac Lake has the formica, the old cogers and the best breakfast in town.

  21. Daisy says:

    The Crystal on the square in Watertown has a great meatloaf special on Wednesdays, comes with two sides. Their mac and cheese is excellent, as is their New England clam chowder on Fridays. Sadly, no fish fry.

    Kristen’s diner in Little Falls also has wonderful meatloaf; maybe not officially the North Country, but if you are in that neck of the woods it’s a good spot for lunch.

  22. Norman Karp says:

    I have two places and I see that the Noonmark Diner is already on the list. We have to stop at Noonmark every time we go by to pick up some pie, yummm. Even though Guma’s is classified as a restaurant they have the counter with stools, booths, etc. it is run by a mother who does all of the cooking and her son manages. They have a real all homemade food, nothing out of the box. I suggest it if you are in the area.

    Guma’s Restaurant
    7577 State Route 22
    West Chazy, NY 12992
    (518) 493-4194

    http://www.gumasrestaurant.com

    Noonmark Diner
    1770 State Route 73
    Keene Valley, NY 12943
    (518) 576-4499

    http://www.noonmarkdiner.com

  23. Pardon me for raining on the food parade here, but there might be a reason that diners are dropping from the landscape (other than due to fast-food competition). Comfort food = high levels of Saturated Fat, a primary source of cholesterol. Pretty much everything on your food wish list (except the baked beans) are a prescription for coronary artery disease if eaten on a daily basis. Just because a restaurant meal is “homemade” does not insure that it’s healthy. Cooking with olive oil instead of butter, for example, can make a measurable difference.

    With the above in mind, I’d like to recommend an extraordinary diner discovery I made in NYC recently: Pret A Manger. It’s a “fast food” chain with 32 locations in Manhattan. Everything on the menu is made with tasty organic ingredients and it’s all good for you! Amazing. Somebody finally got it right.

    http://www.pret.com

  24. Joe B says:

    Try the Higley diner in South Colton. Great fried haddock on Friday’s, super meatloaf, homemade bread, pies and other family fare.

  25. Dale Hobson says:

    Todd said: Pardon me for raining on the food parade here… Pretty much everything on your food wish list (except the baked beans) are a prescription for coronary artery disease if eaten on a daily basis.

    I confess. Good thing I don’t eat it or recommend it on a daily basis. But if you are in reasonable health, occasional high-fat indulgences are OK, or so most nutritionists say. It’s like rain, refreshing in small doses. Too much rain, by the way, leads to an uncontrollable desire for comfort food.

    Dale, NCPR

  26. Alan says:

    I second Lloyd’s of Lowville: http://www.genx40.com/archive/2005/august/notlloydsof

    But seeing as I was last there in 2005, sure my arteries have recovered.

  27. “Pardon me for raining on the food parade here, but there might be a reason that diners are dropping from the landscape (other than due to fast-food competition).”

    Right, that’s why chain restaurants like McDonalds and KFC are exploding in popularity. It must be all their low cholesterol food. *sarcasm*

  28. patricia marsh says:

    Let us all know when you find any and all of the places .

  29. John says:

    I’ll speak up for the Hometown Diner in Norwood. Excellent pie selection, nice staff and an ice cream kiosk outside.

    There’s a diner out on 68 between Canton and Ogdensburg that I’ll make it a priority to check out. I’ll make that sacrifice for the good of the list.

  30. Martha Lumley says:

    Ditto for the Cascade(good Pie& coffee
    Try the Hillside in Oswegatchie (rt3 between Star Lake and Fine)
    My favorite ole-timey diner is the Hideaway in Colton… just before the junction of state rts. 56 and 68 there is a little road called Gulf Road. There is the Colton Health Care Clinic and the next building on the right(hidden behind a hedge of evergreens-hence the name) is the Hideaway. Excellent desserts… the (real) Maple cheesecake is astounding. I believe I have had good mac’n cheese there, nothing bad ever.
    Check by Phone for fried chicken availability, but worth the trip, regardless.

    Looking forward to the completed map
    Martha Lumley

  31. Anne Burnham says:

    Hi Dale,

    Good news on food. The Coop Bakery is now making pies on Fridays and Saturdays. They make a delicious Apple with scrumschous crumble top and quite a few other varieties. You can buy it by the slice or special order a whole pie from Chris. If you want to eat it there, you can get the coffee to go with and enjoy it at a table on the porch or in the garden.

    Enjoy,

    Anne B

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