Saturday morning was my younger son’s college graduation. This entailed a long drive Friday and a return trip Saturday along the Southern Tier Expressway
. If you’ve ever traveled, for business or pleasure, along the length of New York’s Southern Tier, you’re familiar with Route 17 (parts of which are now designated Interstate 86, parts of which are designated Future Interstate 86, and parts of which are neither, but all of which will always be known as Route 17 to anyone who has driven it). There used to be a sign noting that Route 17 had been named America’s Most Scenic Highway one year in the 1960s. But that was then. This is now.
When I first traveled the road regularly, in the late 1960s, the old, winding, hilly, two-lane roadway (on which you invariably ended up behind a slow truck in a ten-mile-long no-passing zone) was in the midst of being replaced with a modern divided highway. This was a long and complicated project, and the construction delays were predictably frustrating, especially so because you would have just passed the slow truck when you spotted the flagman. There was plenty of time to enjoy the scenery, in other words, although the cars college students could afford in those days were not air-conditioned.
Nowadays, the road itself is fine, but the question of where to stop for a meal is the same as it always was. And so is the answer.
Traveling westbound from New York City, Route 17 is the old artery of the Borscht Belt
, an area that started to wane in popularity as the spread of air conditioning in the City meant people didn’t necessarily have to spend their summers in the mountains to escape the heat. The grand old resort hotels have mostly burned or gone bankrupt. The once-thriving tourist trade is a shadow of its former self. Do you stop at a chain fast-food place or do you risk a place where the paint is peeling and there are maybe two cars in the parking lot. Somehow, nothing looks appealing, and you drive on.
Traveling eastbound, you go through some pretty desolate-looking stretches, and then you’re in the Catskill Preserve, which is even more desolate. So the fact that you didn’t stop back there is starting to look like maybe it wasn’t such a good decision.
But just as the tacky-looking old resort area peters out, coming from the east, and just as you get through the wilderness area, coming from the west, there’s Roscoe, a mecca for fly fishers and the home of one of the great eateries of North America, the Roscoe Diner.
The Roscoe Diner, which doesn’t need and therefore doesn’t have a Web site of its own, has been there since before food was invented. Well, not really. But I can’t find anyone who knows just how long it really has been there. The kid who was running the cash register on Sunday said he thought at least since sometime in the 1950s, but I know people who think it predates that. Oh, the building has been replaced more than once, and the menu has changed a little to keep up with the tastes of the traveling public. And the diner even changed hands. The original owner got out just as the new road was completed (this was the last stretch of 17 to be finished). Maybe he thought the traffic was going to drive by without stopping; maybe it was just time for him to retire. But the current owner is the son of the man who bought it in 1969.
Like coffee shops in New York City, diners throughout much of the Northeast are predominantly owned by Greek immigrants or their descendants. The diner that began as a Pullman dining car retired from the railroad and planted on a city street–remodeled with an Art Deco stainless steel interior–has gradually evolved to the modular modern diner, with its faux stone exterior, over-the-top stainless steel, glass, plastic, neon, and formica interior, and predictable menu. The man who bought the Roscoe Diner in 1969 was from one of these Greek families, and the current building and its decor are consistent with that tradition.
I overheard the guy at the next table Sunday night, a fellow maybe a few years older than I am, telling his family that the place had originally been a popular truck stop. An urban myth among travelers, before the Interstate system was built, was that anywhere you saw a bunch of trucks in the parking lot must be a good place to eat. The truth of the matter is that anywhere you saw a bunch of trucks in the parking lot must be a place with a big parking lot, and that’s why truckers stopped there. But the myth was undoubtedly enough to get vacation travelers and college students to stop at the Roscoe Diner. And good, cheap food, being particularly appealing to college students, a lot of them have stopped by over the years.
Road Food maven Michael Stern
–whose opinions and reviews I greatly respect–doesn’t quite get the Roscoe Diner. In particular, he doesn’t get the “rather peculiar motif of college pennants.” One look at a map of college locations in relation to New York and Long Island (home to a lot of students who attend those colleges), makes it clear that all those pennants were dropped off by fans of the diner.
I stopped at the Roscoe Diner in the 1960s, under the original ownership. And I stopped there in the 1970s once or twice, under the new owner. And from 1973 until this weekend, I never had occasion to stop there again. I can tell you that at its soul, the restaurant is the same as it always was. Had I not asked, I would have thought the restaurant was still run by the original family. The only clue on the menu that anything might have changed was the section of Greek specialties. (Obligatory editorial nitpick: Pastitsio was misspelled as pastichio. If they can’t spell it, I won’t eat it. I should add, though, that it was the only misspelled word I noticed on the huge–pages and pages–menu.) Otherwise, this edge-of-the-Borscht-Belt diner was true to its (very unkosher) Jewish roots, from the complimentary half-sour kosher dills and cole slaw to the Reuben sandwich variations to the rugelach in the dessert case. But don’t get me wrong. There was something for everyone. Homemade New York-style clam chowder. Wraps and panini. Burgers (fresh meat, and they’ll cook it rare if you want them to) of all sorts. Italian, Mexican, and American comfort foods. And, or course, great breakfasts.
What makes the Roscoe Diner an institution–other than the perfect location halfway between Point A and Point B? Great management. The place is spotless. Always. The waitresses–the ones who last, anyway–are straight out of central casting. Everything is homemade. And the cooks know what they’re doing. They put out good food fast. Watch the swinging doors to the kitchen at lunchtime and you’ll see a dozen full plates of food come through in a minute. I don’t know how many people work in the kitchen, but it runs like a well-oiled machine.
Is this fine dining? Nope. Nobody ever meant it to be. Is it great road food? Yes. No. Maybe. Depends what you order. Is it an experience everyone should share? Yes, unequivocally, it is.