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Let’s Do the Time Warp

by B.A. Nilsson on November 22, 2011

Don and Paul’s Coffee Shoppe, 68 Broad St, Waterford, 233-1040. Serving daily 6 AM-9 PM. MC, V.

Cuisine: all-American

Entrée price range: $1.70 (burger with chips) to $11 (scallops dinner)

Ambiance: a little gossip, a little chat

If you bread it and deep fry it, they will come. I watched with fascination as the booths and counter cleared of a busy round of customers and the restaurant seemed to take a deep breath—and another wave came through the door and filled the counter and booths again. All the while, plate after heaping plate of dinner items flew out of the kitchen. It was about 7 PM on a recent drizzly evening. The place couldn’t have seemed more homelike.

“Are you from out of town?” asked our server. Not confrontationally: It was a question born of justifiable curiosity. We were strangers to the place, and I’m guessing strangers here lose their strangerhood quickly. Don and Paul’s is on Waterford’s main drag. A tattoo parlor, a martial arts school and a Chinese restaurant nestle nearby, as do other eateries. It’s a welcoming vista on an evening-darkened street. Inside seating choices are counter stools, tables and booths. You holler your choice above the din of a television, a back-room billiards game and the many conversations in progress. The written menu—an ad-filled diner-ish tome in plastic covers—lists breakfast and lunch, which is always available. A Coke-branded letterboard gives the dinner items.

Let’s start with the eggs. Want two of them with toast and coffee? Prepare to pony up a buck seventy-five. Add another $1.35 for ham, sausage or bacon. An egg sandwich is $1.40 (a quarter extra for cheese), and the price rises slightly when you add meat. A cheese omelet starts at $2.35, and various manifestations of ham and cheese and peppers and such boosts the price up to $4.25. All of which is fairly ridiculous to detail, because all you really need to know is that you’re going to pay as little as you can reasonably imagine.

Pancakes, French toast, waffles, corned-beef hash, bagels, hash browns, oatmeal, donuts—it’s all here, fantastically priced.

The sandwich menu offers a burger for $1.70, served with chips. Adding lettuce, tomato, onions and fries raises it to a breathtaking $3. Let me spell that out: three dollars. Hot dogs, small and large. Grilled cheese. Tuna melt. Turkey. Ham. Roast beef, at $4.25 the costliest of the sandwiches. Subs run you $3 to $3.75 for a mini, $5-$6 for full, and can be built with salami, tuna, turkey, ham, burgers, chicken tenders, steak and cheese—and I’m sure they’ll mix it up however you wish.

Dinner comes with two side dishes, typically a choice of vegetables and/or potatoes. Both Lily and Susan chose mashed potatoes and green beans, the former very margarine-enhanced, the latter of the ultra-softened steam-table variety. Among the items: an 8-ounce steak for $8.75. Lasagna for $7.25. A $4.25 fish fry ($6 with fries and salad). Fried scallops for $11, fried shrimp for $8.75 and the same price for fried chicken.

But we’re not talking about gourmet fare. That’s not what this restaurant is about. That’s not what this review is about. This is about Thanksgiving, when, for better or worse, friends and families assemble to share a meal. My main requirement for the holiday is that the gathering be made up of people who truly like one another, and my wife and I have pursued what’s now a two-and-a-half-decade tradition of spending the day with such folks. There’s the issue of food, of course, which is a multi-day project that I often wish I could abandon if someone would only hand me a plate of sliced turkey on white bread with a pool of salty gravy glistening on top. The every-day-is-Thanksgiving-Day feeling that permeates Don and Paul’s is a product of the demographic unique to a small city like Waterford, with a deeply rooted population living close to the village center. Along with the regular locals, there’s a steady canal-provided clientele in season.

Don Bowles opened the restaurant more than 30 years ago with his brother-in-law, Paul, eventually buying out his interest but preserving the name. The restaurant is open almost every day—Christmas and the Fourth of July are exceptions. The walls teem with old photos and gewgaws. Among the items displayed near our table were a nautical scene framed in a porthole, a packet of 29-cent iron-on patches, a packet of “The Button” light bulb savers, an old Freihofer’s flyer, a collection of buck knives, a photo of the old Waterford Bridge—sounds like a list out of Salinger.

We expected nothing in the way of fancy fare. We weren’t disappointed. The order of wings (10 for $6), ordered hot, arrived hot, its Tabasco-rich sauce great for me, annoying to my wife. I also got the chicken parm served over thin spaghetti, drenched in sweet tomato sauce and topped with melted mozzarella. The cutlet within? Deep-fried, of course.

Fried chicken is done the traditional way, crunchy and juicy and with pieces to spare. The fried shrimp boasted little in the way of interesting seasoning, and the shrimp itself was characteristically bland—but I’ve never succumbed to the crustacean’s lure.

We, or I should say I, finished with a bowl of homemade rice pudding, a perfectly neutral example of this once-ubiquitous dessert. It’s easy to linger in a place like this, but we had a long way to travel. The Chinese restaurant was empty. The martial-arts place featured the unlikely sight of middle-aged people spinning hula hoops. The tattoo parlor was closed, but its neon lit much of the street. We went home.