price range: $9 (meatloaf) to $20 (18-ounce prime rib)
Capital Region rest aurant visit was to Tops, back in 1980,
when it was still a square box of a diner. But I was still
a relative latecomer—this place has been going for 70 years,
since it opened as the Sodium Diner in honor of its newfangled
lights. Back then it was a traditional railroad car; 30 years
later it was replaced with the building I visited.
to rebuild again first were hatched in the early 1980s, but
it wasn’t until last year that a new, twice-as-large structure
went up. To emphasize a more streamlined menu, the restaurant’s
name changed, too, losing the word “diner.” But it still offers
a diner-style welcome, all-day breakfast and a short list
of favorites from the former menu—comfort foods like meatloaf,
chicken pot pie, roast turkey with stuffing, and fried chicken,
all priced from $9 to $12 and including a soup or salad and
the usual sides.
that part of the menu for our regulars,” said manager Tiffany,
who has been with the restaurant for four years, “and we’ll
try to make anything a customer wants. If someone asks for
something we used to have and we can’t make it, we’ll take
a phone number and give that person a call when we can.”
typeface with which the word TOPS is rendered is echoed, in
spirit, in the restaurant’s new decor. Palm trees are prominent
and raise the bar of outrageousness, echoed in UFO-like lighting
fixtures and the beach-cheerful pastels of the banquette backs.
It combines into a fun, welcoming look.
be distracted, no doubt, by the dessert and pastry cases perched
by the welcome station, which also doubles as an ice-cream
bar. Carrot cake, apple pie, cheesecake, baklava, strawberry
torte, éclairs, and more grin calorically back at you; outsized
cookies, Danish, muffins, biscotti and other pastries await
nearby. It’s all made on the premises; it all looks fantastic.
past it, to a table in the heart of the place, escorted by
a cheerful hostess who made sure we were comfortable before
leaving us with menus. These remain diner-sized, with individual
pages given to appetizers, steaks and seafood, chicken and
pasta, the aforementioned comfort food, soup and salad, burgers
and pizza, deli sandwiches and wine and beer (the restaurant
also boasts a full bar).
also an extensive daily specials list that veers toward the
more (for this kind of place) exotic, such as wild mushroom
risotto with chicken and sausage ($15), a bacon-asparagus
pizza ($8) or even just grilled asparagus spears ($3.50).
start with a—hold on a sec; there goes my wife, ready to give
her complete order to the server even as I agonize over what
to drink. Can we just get some beverages first? Thank you.
You can start with a $12 appetizer tasting platter that offers
a selection of wings, potato skins, mozzarella sticks, jerk
pot stickers and a bunch of dipping sauces, or you can order
them individually ($6 to $8 apiece).
for a single order of the pot stickers, unusual for this kind
of menu, which turned out to be a delightful mix of mildly
spicy chicken, onions and peppers in dumpling-like wrappers,
served with a dark, tangy dipping sauce.
the specials list I chose antipasto, always a great concept,
often a disappointment when it turns out to be a pile of iceberg
with deli meat thrown on top. This one, however, won me over
with its Tuscan bean- tapenade-stuffed salami and grilled
vegetable rollatini (a compote of slivers of peppers and squash
wrapped in a grilled eggplant slice), on top of a good bed
of mixed greens and supported by olives, marinated mushrooms,
sharp provolone wedges and such.
orders typically include soup or salad. Soups of the day were
a salty beef barley, tasting too much like a commercial brew
for any distinction, and a much better chicken and pasta mix.
The salad, as the antipasto suggests, sports fresh greens
and a good mixture of veggies with a ramekin of dressing (all
the popular choices are here) on the side.
they do with steaks? Quite well, as it happens. Although the
12-ounce NY strip steak was cut on the skinny side, it was
grilled to the required doneness, suitably tender, and nicely
mated with an onion-rich demi-glace ($17). Risotto is one
of the available sides, and it was creamy and rich.
my wife ordered a chicken dish, in this case Mediterranean
chicken ($13) in which the meat is served with capers and
tomatoes, seasoned with garlic and lemon, dressed with thyme
and parsley, and presented alongside red bliss potatoes. A
good balance of seasonings and garnish made this more flavorful
than is too often the case.
eggplant, feta cheese and roasted tomatoes and you have the
potential for a good meal. Tops’ pork chops à la Mykonos adds
the above to a generous-sized pair of chops ($15), and the
extra flavors—especially the feta and tomatoes—gave the meat
a desirable sweetness and fullness.
to the credit of owner Andreas Christou and his son Evan,
the general manager, that not only is the food reliably good
but also the staff is attentive and the morale is high. There’s
nothing like an extreme makeover to bring new life to a restaurant,
and this one obviously is enjoying its rebirth.