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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Silver Linings

By B.A. Nilsson

The Chuck Wagon Diner

653 Route 20, Duanesburg, 356-3003. Serving 6 AM-8 PM daily. D, MC, V.

Cuisine: breakfast and burgers and such

Entrée price range: $4 (Lone Ranger burger) to $12 (fisherman platter)

Ambiance: Happy Days

This is a vintage silver diner that started life two generations and a time zone away. It was the Chuck Wagon in Champaign, Ill., until 1976, when the building already was 20 years old. It bounced across the state—Villa Grove to Urbana to Homer—before winding up in Michigan in 2002. Tom and Sally Ketchum bought the diner late in 2007, at which point it was languishing, shuttered in Detroit and, says Sally, about in the shape you’d expect of a building in such a circumstance.

The Ketchums moved the structure to Princetown, and news of its travel attracted the attention of the person who’d bought the original Chuck Wagon sign at a 1976 auction and stored it thereafter. You see it in front of the diner now, reunited—as is the diner’s original foyer, which was also separated during the many moves and, against all odds, relocated. A Seeburg jukebox, same age as the building, stocked with 45s, sits just inside the diner. You can drop quarters there or choose selections from tableside units. Green is the dominant indoor color, topping the tables and stools and kitchen door.

As soon as my friend Malcolm and I were seated, Sally Ketchum perched on a nearby stool and determined where we were from and what brought us here—which explained how she was able to greet so many others by name as they arrived.

Let’s take a quick look at the breakfast menu before choosing dinner. The Working Man’s Quick and Easy Breakfast presents five items priced from $3.25 to $4.50, featuring a hard roll with an egg or two and a choice of the typical sides: cheese, ham, bacon, sausage. And coffee. Breakfast tops out at $11 for steak and eggs, but you’ll stay in the $4 to $9 range with the array of waffles, French toast and buttermilk pancakes, the price going up only when you slap some sides onto the plate. Corned beef hash is homemade, served with home fries and toast, and it’s $7.29 on one side of the page, $7 in the Breakfast Specials box on the other. The best deal may be the Big Two, which gives you a deuce apiece of eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage and toast with home fries. All for a mere eight bucks.

Lunch and dinner items cover three pages, beginning with French onion soup ($4) and homemade chili ($3.29/$5), augmented by soup specials ($2.29/$3.29), one of which, when I visited, was corn chowder. It’s homemade, too, but a victim of the fate of many a cream soup that goes through vicissitudes of temperature: The base had broken. Good flavor, though.

Have soup with a salad (garden or Caesar) or half a sandwich for $6. Salads alone are $4 for house, 50 cents more for Caesar and $7 for chef, with additions of tuna, chicken or egg salad for another $2. Or do what we did and throw dietary caution away with the Chuck Wagon Snack Platter. This $9 plate gives an appetizer tour with a half-dozen wings (usually $6), a pair apiece of mozzarella sticks (a full order is $6) and chicken fingers ($6). Basic stuff, served with barbecue sauce, marinara sauce and blue cheese dressing. Nothing ambitious or surprising here.

Malcolm was there for a burger, but decided to forego the cowboy-related selections (Lone Ranger, Hi-Ho Silver, Charles Goodnight, each with a variation of cheese and other extras, priced from $4 to $6) and even the Elvis (mushrooms and blue cheese on toasted rye, $6) in favor of the Fats Domino, where (for $6.59) he got two patties, bacon, onions, and Swiss cheese. Although it’s ordinarily served with chips and a pickle, you can upgrade to fries for an extra $2. Malcolm went even more of a distance and asked for sweet potato fries, which set off his grub nicely. The burger itself was good of its kind, certainly far superior to the fast-food variety that’s creeping into this kind of price range.

There’s a selection of deli sandwiches in the $6 range, club sandwiches for less than $8, and you can buy the cold cuts by the pound, which only makes sense. Hot sandwiches ($8) feature the likes of turkey, roast beef and meat loaf, while the classic Reuben ($8) is among the Grilled Sandwich Specials set off in their own menu box. That’s where grilled cheese ($4) and hot dogs ($1.79) live—diner stalwarts.

When I go back, and I will go back, I’ll have the pan-seared liver ($10). Too rarely seen, too good to turn down. But I was tempted even more by the Yankee pot roast ($10), which broke no culinary ground, I’m afraid. Oh, the meat was tender enough, but the thick, dark sauce and the scoop of mashed potatoes made no impressive flavor statements, while the vegetable was a monkey dish (to use a restaurant term) of bland, canned peas.

Like the music that runs in the background, food is a background activity to diner visiting as a social event. On this level, the Chuck Wagon works very well.

Big, impressive-looking desserts went by as we finished our meals, but we’d punished ourselves enough with the deep-fried goods and could see that the outsourced sweet stuff was no different than any other such offering—although I spied whipped cream coming out of a pastry bag, which is commendable.

Princetown doesn’t have much in the way of sit-down eateries, so this could be a gold mine. Just remember: You’re not going for the food.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady Day Nursery’s 11th annual fundraising event, “A Little Bit of Jazz & More,” will take place from 5:30 to 8 today (Thursday, April 29) in the Fenimore Gallery at Proctors Theatre (432 State St., Schenectady). The “more” part of the proceedings includes a cornucopia of food, including a carving station with turkey breast and roast beef, a pasta station, an hors d’oeuvres display and, if you don’t want to fetch your food, circulating trays with even more hors d’oeuvres, including sesame chicken, a Mediterranean artichoke tart, shrimp Wellington, spanakopita and more. There will be complimentary beer and wine and Chocolates by Lindt. The jazz part is a performance by Colleen Pratt and Friends. The event includes a benefit drawing with a choice of a $500 gift card at either Town TV or Empress Travel, and gift baskets sponsored by the Schenectady Day Nursery Board of Directors. Reservations are $50 per person or $100 for honorary committee status, and may be made by calling Jim Kalohn at 894-6305. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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