CRARYVILLE, N.Y. -- I adore classic 1950s American diners housed for over half a century in shiny streamline moderne trailers. These places, the experience of being in them, suggests that the originators of the post-war diner got something very right.
After I picked up Amy at the train station in Hudson, N.Y., at 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday and we poked around town for a spell, we began the journey back to Stockbridge.
"Do you want to get something to eat?" she asked, as we sped out of Hudson, the urban-feeling downtown quickly giving way to expanses of pasture. I sure did want to get something to eat.
We kept our eyes peeled while heading east on Route 23, and as soon as we drove over the Taconic Parkway and the Martindale Chief Diner came into view, she exclaimed, "That's the place we've been trying to go!"
We'd stopped by before, drawn by the looks of the place, but had found it just after the "closed" sign was flipped. You can find it about 20 minutes by car from Sheffield when heading west on Route 23, and it sure is eye-catching. You may know it as the visual marker tipping you off that the Taconic Parkway onramp is coming up soon. The vintage roadside sign is as eye-catching as any, bearing a red, white and blue composition typical of the era focused around the face of an American Indian man, smiling and waving.
The image of a racially stereotyped person portrayed as deferential and the use of Chief in the restaurant's name are clearly unsuitable for today's ethical and cultural climate. Perhaps it's the long-outdated subtexts of the sign coupled with its Boy Scout-style paint job, but the Modern graphic edifice disarms me in a way that I feel entirely innocent about, as if it existed in a living museum with room for past misunderstandings to coexist with present misunderstandings (We'll get there someday. Or we won't).
I was excited to experience the inside of this Atomic-era vision glimmering on the side of the road each time I drove to route Hudson or the Taconic, always with somewhere to be. We knew they stayed open until 8:30 p.m. and pulled into their lot at 8 p.m., hoping there'd be time to eat.
Our friendly waitress seated the two of us immediately at a booth table with a window view of the highway and trees beside it. There isn't a bad seat in the house given the diner's well-maintained original interior. The counter, barstools, tables, walls, mirrors; all of it was shaped with attractiveness, efficiency and durability in mind. Bright chrome, mirrors, retro glass lights and patterned laminate tabletops -- the designers did a bang-up job.
I don't need to tell you about the menus. They are packed with options in all sorts of categories, and represent New Jersey-style diner fare in an accurate way. The food was good and cheap, as it tends to be at vintage diners. Amy's chef salad with Swiss cheese ($7.95) and my barbeque chicken salad with Italian dressing ($8.95) were both entirely satisfying. My salad was topped with a full chicken breast, grilled and sliced on a bed of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and lettuce. Dollars well spent.
Think of all the corners and shadows of our world into which change has completed a full cycle or two since the 1950s. Then stop and think about gleaming roadside diners with cheesy retro signs and the same-ish menu you've spotted from the car and relied on since childhood. There's little overlap between the two.
The Martindale Chief Diner lives up to this standard and is a beauty to behold. As we walk out, our waitress, who'd spotted me snapping photos, said, "There's our diner number," and pointed to a stamped and painted metal plaque mounted above the door. It reads, "Silk City Diners, Manufactured By Peterson vehicle Co., Patterson, N.J., Original Serial No 5807."
This company, I later learned, mass-produced various models like this one from 1927 until 1964. The first two digits in this diner's serial number suggest that it was constructed in 1958, and it sure looks and feels like it.