It has taken me many years before I could revisit the Sandy Hook Diner. I used to eat there regularly. It was a quintessential small-town diner, a genre that is fading fast. The Sandy Hook Diner was the touchstone of a community, serving the residents since 1938. It was where locals met for breakfast, where everyone knew everyone else and waitresses knew who was going to order what before they handed them the menu.
And then that terrible thing happened in Sandy Hook, and as with Sept. 11, the whole world changed overnight. How could this sweet New England town turn overnight into an emblem for the darkest side of human nature. I wanted to come here again, but I hesitated because I feared once innocence is lost it can never be regained.
I parked in front of the Sandy Hook Diner, or at least parked to the best of my ability. I am a decent driver, but I still can’t parallel park. I was exiting my car when two handsome teenage boys knocked on my car window to tell me I had two tires on the curb. They were so sweet looking, I held out my keys and one of them parked the Subaru perfectly, with all four tires on the road. Then, after holding the diner door open for me, they joined their dad inside, and I settled down for lunch at my own table.
I looked at the menu and the specials listed on the wall. I looked around at the collectable knickknacks and the goofy sarcastic signs on the wall so beloved by small-town eateries. I saw a bulletin board with business cards from local businesses, and the waitress came smiling over and brought me a cup of coffee.
No one had the look of doom I had imagined, the solemnity of what had once consumed the town had been transformed back to normality: right before me were friends meeting for lunch, chatter and talk of baseball scores and the ubiquitous big smiles when large platters of yummy food hit the table. I was stunned by the resilience of human nature. Life goes on.
Relaxing into the calm atmosphere I ordered a lot of food, because nothing is better as an antidote against despair then pies, and fries, and pancakes. I ordered enough for three people and no one raised an eyebrow.
It would be a stretch to say that the food at the Sandy Hook Diner was the best I ever had. But it certainly would be relevant to mention a few highlights. One of the hardest things to find on any menu is great corned beef hash. It also happens to be one of my greatest delights. I am not talking about the dog-food-like mess that comes out of cans, I mean really good meat chopped up with potatoes and onions and fried on the grill until every edge is crisp and brown. The Sandy Hook Diner does it just right and, sided with an omelette and a stack of toast, it can’t be topped.
I perused the menu for other things that seemed uncommon, and I found creamed hamburger on toast.
I truly can’t think of any other place where I have seen this dish. Historically I have seen it on menus from the 1930s. Was it invented here? Does anyone still order it? Of course I did and when it arrived I realized that it was a spin on that old diner classic creamed chipped beef on toast or as they like to call it in the army “S.O.S.” I will leave it to you to figure out the acronym. The Sandy Hook Diner version is ground round and not jerky-like shreds of beef, and, yes, it is enrobed in a cream sauce. I have to admit I really liked it. It was very strange and like nursery food or maybe geriatric cuisine, but either way it is something I will remember next time I need to eat a rib-sticking meal after extensive dental work.
The Sandy Hook Diner serves simple food. Eggs and bacon, hamburgers and hot dogs. You can sit in the large, airy dining room or, if you really want a taste of being in a vintage diner, sit at the counter by the front door. Inside, it is spic and span, not at all a greasy spoon, but the floor seems to list a bit and the decor might have been chosen by Edward Hopper.
I could not leave without slices of the apple pie and the blueberry pie. I was now on my third cup of coffee and it just didn’t seem right to be unpatriotic when two culinary emblems of our country were on the menu. Both pies were homemade, no commercial crusts, and both awash with rich fruit that poured forth from the browned dough.
When I left I, saw some small American flags planted in flowering pots. I was happy the Sandy Hook Diner still survives and I was very proud to be a Connecticut-based American citizen.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern.