Most of my wife’s relatives live in the Cleveland area, so we go there periodically, including the past couple days. Unless you’ve got a lot of extra time on your hands, allowing you to take the Lincoln Highway across Pennsylvania into Ohio, the drive from Philly to Cleveland on the PA and OH Turnpikes is monotonous, to say the least. The truth is, when I’m not driving, I try to get some sleep in.
The highlight of these eight-hour drives is usually the meal stops, and this time was no exception. I won’t settle for the corporate fast-food stands at the Turnpike rest stops. We always get off the highway to eat, usually at the Summit Diner in Somerset, which I’ve written about on this blog. But for the drive out to Cleveland Saturday, we weren’t prepared to wait the four hours it takes to get to Somerset to eat. I had several small-town cafe-luncheonette type restaurants and diners lined up as possibilities. We first got off the Turnpike at the Harrisburg-East exit with an eye on the 230 Cafe in Highspire, PA. But when we arrived there, it was packed and there was a line that we didn’t wish to wait in. The Highspire Diner, down the street from the 230 Cafe, appeared very small and also looked crowded. We may very well return to one or both of these places on a later trip, as both appear to have good potential, but we were hungry and not in the mood to wait at that point Saturday. So we decided to get back on the Turnpike and drive a little further west, to the Carlisle exit. I had picked out a few possibilities for dining in Carlisle, and we lucked out with the first one we tried. They had tables available and fit the bill as far as my desire to avoid places that are lacking in charm or too corporate looking.
Fay’s Country Kitchen has been serving up breakfast and lunch since the early 70s. They look every bit the small-town cafe, with the addition of a Coca-Cola motif.
Although it was lunch time when we arrived at Fay’s, we both went with breakfast, as I do more-often-than-not at diners and luncheonettes. My wife ordered raisin French toast, which really didn’t look like any French toast I’ve ever seen. But she enjoyed it, which is more important than how it looked. My basic breakfast plate was top notch. The sausage patties were flavorful and juicy and the home fries were extra crispy and had onions mixed in.
I asked if they had pie and our server was extremely and unnecessarily apologetic about the fact that they did not. I wasn’t too upset about that because I noticed a Meadows Frozen Custard along the route from the Turnpike into downtown Carlisle and intended to stop there if I had any appetite left after leaving Fay’s. Meadows Frozen Custard is a Pennsylvania chain that I’ve tried a couple times before. They make genuine and high quality frozen custard. A couple of their older locations have a classic, old-fashioned ice cream stand look. But most of them, including this one, are lacking in roadfood charm. Nonetheless, I was excited about making an unscheduled custard stop. And I was really in luck, because one of their flavors of the day was chocolate-marshmallow, a favorite of mine. I ordered a single scoop in a cone, but the girl who was at the counter appeared to squeeze closer to three scoops on there. It was tremendous custard, and I was extra-stuffed when we got back on the Turnpike heading west.
For dinner that night, I had planned for us to go to a place called Bearden’s in the western suburbs of Cleveland, which is where our hotel was. I had tried to go to Bearden’s, which is known for peanut-butter topped burgers and milkshakes, during my first visit to Cleveland with my wife in 2006, but they were closed that day. We haven’t had another opportunity to try it out since then, so this was a long-time coming. And it’s going to be longer still. We made terrible time getting out to Cleveland – partially because of a longer than expected lunch stop – and arrived at our hotel fairly late. Neither my wife nor I see well at night and decided we should eat somewhere close to the hotel. Luckily for us, I had a plan B in the event that something like this would happen. The alternative dinner stop was Swenson’s, a Cleveland-Akron area drive-in burger and shake chain that has been on my list of places-to-try for probably about as long as Bearden’s has been on there.
We arrived at Swenson’s and parked, but before going inside, we noticed that the servers go out to the cars to take and deliver orders, in true drive-in fashion. Being newbies, we didn’t know all of the particulars of this system and screwed up. After a guy came out and took the orders of other nearby cars, but ignored us, I got his attention and told him we were from out-of-town and needed guidance. He promptly told us to turn the car around and back into our spot. They are notified that a party is ready to order when their car’s headlights are turned on. Thankfully, we managed to order and get our food without any further screw-ups on our part.
Swenson’s has quite the operation. The servers literally run out to cars to take an order. It was like watching Pete Rose as a waiter. I tried to videotape one of them in action, but was too slow with my phone.
We took the food back to our room to eat. My double-cheeseburger seemed slightly dry at first bite, but it grew on me as I continued to eat. The bun was lightly toasted, while the meat had a very nice flavor and wasn’t overly dry; just a tad. My wife and I shared an order of Potato Teezers, which I expected to be like Tater Tots. I was wrong. They had more personality than tots. Teezers are bigger and have a little cheese and jalapeno mixed in with the potato. I also had a solid, if unspectacular peanut butter shake.
The next morning, we tried another place near the hotel for breakfast. Canary’s Restaurant sits in a shopping center and doesn’t look like much from the outside. But it had a bit of roadfood charm inside. My wife mentioned that it looked like a place where people in the area meet once a week to catch up.
She ordered a veggie skillet. For some reason, I expected it to be served in the skillet. I had a breakfast served that way in Chicago once. But this one came out on an ordinary plate. In any event, my wife liked it. I had French toast and bacon, which again, were solid, but not spectacular.
The rest of Sunday was spent with family. We were back on the highway heading home this morning. We did not stop to eat at the Summit Diner on the way out to Cleveland, so there was no question as to where we would be eating on the way home. I can’t remember the last time we took a road-trip to the Midwest or Pittsburgh without stopping there at least once. That’s going back at least 15 years now.
We arrived in Somerset around 12:30 and were somewhat surprised to see a line of people out the door and a full parking lot. It turned out that they have people wait for tables outside rather than letting them do so inside due to the current Covid circumstances. But it was a very short wait. We were seated in about five minutes.
My wife went with a diner classic; an open-face hot turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes smothered in gravy. I have been a creature of habit at the Summit, almost always ordering a basic breakfast plate, a breakfast sandwich or a double-cheeseburger. But I wasn’t in the mood for any of those and decided to try something different; chicken and waffles. It was not the classic bone-in fried chicken over a large waffle. These were chicken strips, as the menu indicated. But the waffle was tremendous. It was like the ones you get at gourmet Belgian waffle shops; perfectly crispy with a hint of sweetness.
I’ve mentioned in other posts that I almost always get pie at the Summit Diner. The first bad sign in that regard was the absence of the usual pie board on the wall. When I asked our server, I was told that they only had Boston Creme Pie, which isn’t even really pie. I questioned further and was relieved when told that the reason for the absence of pie was that it was Monday and they had an extremely busy weekend. I still suspect they’ve cut back on their daily pie selection since the pandemic hit. I know they’ve shortened their hours. I guess we’ll see the next time I’m there, which hopefully won’t be on a Monday.