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October 14, 2008

The Blue Benn
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 05:14 PM * 45 comments

A diner.

We went to Albacon last weekend, accompanied by our elder son, Brendan. Our route took us through scenic Bennington, Vermont, site of the Battle of Bennington (16th August, 1777, MGEN John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne v. BGEN John “Live Free or Die” Stark), and home to Bennington College.

Bennington is about forty miles east of Albany, New York.

Anyway, when we travel we (thanks to Brendan) have a neat book called Roadfood: The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 700 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More by Jane & Michael Stern. It was our desire to stop at a diner (because eating at diners will help save America). So when supper time came, and we were near Bennington, we pulled off at The Blue Benn.

Here’s how the book describes it:

Blue Benn Diner
314 North St. 802-442-5140
Bennington, VT BLD | $

The Blue Benn, an original Silk City dining car, was planted on this site along Route 7 in 1949. To this day, it remains a true-blue hash house with a menu that includes such square meals as pot roast, turkey dinner, and meat loaf and mashed potatoes. In addition to the expected, there are international dishes including Syrian-bread roll-ups and vegetarian enchiladas, and such modern fare as a grilled salmon Caesar salad. In fact, the interior is plastered everywhere with literally hundreds of kitchen specials, plain to fancy. Breakfast delights include corn bread French toast and stacks of Crunchberry pancakes with turkey hash on the side, as well as eminently dunkable locally-made donuts.

“BLD” means Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner. “$” means one full meal under $10. (Ratings go up to “$$$”.)

The little naviguesser got us there no problem. The place is within sight of the Battle of Bennington Memorial (an obelisk). It’s a little silver railcar on the right side of the road (as you drive south on North Street) with blue awnings in front and a cinderblock kitchen built on the back. It’s small on the inside, but cosy. Little two-songs-for-a-quarter jukeboxes at each booth. Counter service. Y’know.

Doyle had the California Benedict (from an ad-hoc sign on the wall), which was two poached eggs on English muffins, guacamole, tomato, and sprouts. Brendan had the Country Benedict (also off a sign on the wall) which was two poached eggs on biscuits with “country gravy.” I went for a classic Reuben and onion rings off the menu. Really good Stuff, folks.

Let’s see … also on this trip we stopped off to see the grave of the town atheist in Lemington, VT; we followed the instructions from Curious New England: The Unconventional Traveler’s Guide to Eccentric Destinations to find it. (See also: Glowing Tomb.)

It is with sorrow that I report that on the way back we didn’t stop to see the grave of Uncle Sam in Troy, New York. I wanted to, but the other convention-weary travelers who accompanied me were not so keen on a side-trip.

We did stop at the P&H Truck Stop in Wells River, VT, for supper on the way back.

As described in Roadfood:

P & H Truck Stop
Exit 17 off I-91 802-429-2141
Wells River, VT BLD | $

P&H, a real truck stop, is not for the fastidious epicure. You need to pass through the aroma of diesel fuel outside to get to the smells of fresh-baked bread and of pot roast with gravy in the dining room. Enter past shelves of whole loaves of white and cinnamon-raisin bread for sale. This is a kitchen that means business.

Soups and chowders are especially inviting: tomato-macaroni soup is thick with vegetables, ground beef, and soft noodles; corn chowder is loaded with potatoes and corn kernels and flavored with bacon. We love the falling-apart pot roast and any kind of sandwich made using thick-sliced P&H bread, but the mashed potatoes (puree de pommes de terre on the bilingual menu, written for French-Canadian truckers) taste like they were made from powder, and the meat loaf is strictly for die-hard diner fans.

The homemade dessert selection is huge, including fruit pies, berry pies, custard pies, meringue pies, Reese’s pie (a peanut-cream), a few types of pudding, and maple-cream pie thick as toffee and topped with nuts.

FWIW, Doyle has the meatloaf whenever we stop there.

Comments on The Blue Benn:
#1 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 05:47 PM:

If you're ever looking for some candy for dessert, the Vermont Confectionery (just outside Bennington) is a wonderful place.

#2 ::: Sara E ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 06:21 PM:

Oh, the Blue Benn! I went to Bennington College and the Blue Benn was my special breakfast treat to myself, especially during the college's field work term. I stayed in Bennington during the winter break and going to the Blue Benn cheered me up when the snow got to me. (I was a transplanted Texan and so I wasn't used to the snow.)

I was in Bennington VERY briefly this summer. I didn't have time to stop at the Blue Benn. I wish I had timed things better and been able to have lunch there.

#3 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 06:25 PM:

I wish I'd known about this place a few years back when we drove from Burlington to North Adams MA via Bennington. It was mid-afternoon, we were feeling nibblish, and all we could find was a bakery out on the western edge of town. Clearly my divvy skills weren't working, drat it. Either of the Benedicts sounds great, although I would feel impelled to require them to hold the sprouts.

Museum is good, though. I completely rethought Grandma Moses.

#4 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 06:48 PM:

Diners. Sigh.

They probably exist out here on the west coast, but I haven't found any. Other than the faux-Fifties shiny kind. The ecological niche is filled places like Denny's, Shari's, and Elmer's. (And truckstop places like the "Buckhorn" chain.)

Two kind of diners deserve the name:

* Tin shacks like the one my parents and I had lunch at last week. (EZ-Way Diner, on route 17 NW of Middletown, NY.)

* "Greek Diners," as often as not now run by Russians. These are standard buildings with very, very elaborate (Read: entertainingly tasteless) decor. Like blown glass jellyfish lamps and LCD screens built into the walls running aquarium software (East Bay Diner, Merrick Road, Seaford NY).

I suspect that the Blue Benn is an especially elaborate tin shack.

I have a menu here in my cube from a "Greek" diner. The Neptune, which may or may be out of business. I got it from a Tin Shack diner (the Old Port, Port Jefferson NY) when it closed about fifteen years ago. The owner, an Egyptian fellow named Mansour, kept it as a sort of cheat sheet of what a fancy diner should serve. (He served a last dinner to the members of the Stony Brook Science Fiction Forum after the place closed its doors. Cooked and eaten by candlelight, because the electricity had been cut off.)

I keep the menu to show co-workers what a real diner is. Four laminated pages, more than legal-sized and densely packed, plus four inserts listing Specials.

#5 ::: Alberto ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 06:57 PM:

I tried to have breakfast at the Blue Benn on my post-VP XII tour of New England, but they were closed. My friend and I wound up going to the Vermont Cider Mill restaurant, just across the highway from the Vermont Confectionery.

Omigosh, the food was yummy, as was the hot cider. And then, later, the candies from the Confectionery? Oh, yes, please, thank you. I heartily echo Melissa's recommendation.

#6 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 06:58 PM:


Stefan - if you're ever in Silverton, Oregon (east of I-5, up in the hills), there is (or was last time I passed through) a little hole-in-the-wall on the main drag (all two blocks of it) whose name escapes me but they make a drinkable cup of Just Plain Ol' Coffee and passably good diner food.

You won't find them in the large cities - you have to get an hour or so away from the freeway, up on the back roads, in towns too small to sport a fast food franchise. There's always someplace where the coffee is plain and a bunch of wary old guys in overalls look every stranger up, down and sideways - but that's where the good food hides.

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 07:04 PM:

Oh, man.

After thinking about diner food, I have this most incredible jones for some kind of pot pie.

There's a Trader Joe on the way home. I should probably see if they have something along those lines.

#8 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 07:25 PM:

Oooh, how timely! I'll be in Bennington this Friday into Saturday. Never been there before, so the diner tip is much appreciated. Thanks!!

#9 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 07:27 PM:

Yo, Stefan -- Roadfood lists 29 places in California, 16 in Oregon, and 13 in Washington. Where are you near?

(In LA, for example, there's Clifton's Cafeteria, Cole's P.E. Buffet, Original Pantry, Philippe the Original, and Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles.)

#10 ::: mimi ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 07:35 PM:

Oh, the Blue Benn! I didn't get to go there often in college (I went to Williams) as I didn't have a car, but it was always a special treat when I did.

#11 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 07:35 PM:

#9: Hillsboro or Beaverton.

#12 ::: Lauren Uroff ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 07:45 PM:

Jim @9 -

Clifton's, Cole's, Original Pantry, and Phillipe's (100 years this week!) are all in downtown Los Angeles. Roscoe's is in a couple of places and it is a fabulous place to eat.

Phillipe's is famous for the french dip sandwiches, cheap coffee, long tables to sit at, and sawdust all over the floor. They had quite a celebration and served over 1,000 free sandwiches in less than 4 hours on their 100th anniversay.

By the way, our ex-mayor Richard Riodan is one of the owners of Original Pantry.

Roscoe's in Pasadena is where I first had the marvelous combination (amd their biggest seller) of fried chicken on a waffle covered with maple syrup.

The best place to eat in LA is a nice little Jewish deli in the Valley. Brent's Delicatessen won 5 stars from Zagat more than once, but it's just a deli. I usually have either a California Club sandwich with the best steak fries ever or a Monte Cristo sandwich. If you're ever in LA, I'd be glad to take you there or to Roscoe's for lunch or dinner.

#13 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 07:52 PM:

Umm, do you always refer to wife by her last name?

#14 ::: Cassandra ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 08:07 PM:

I know what I'm getting my dad for Christmas. Every time he comes to visit me in MA I want to take him somewhere different, but he wants a $2 tuna melt, so we end up compromising for meals.

#15 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 08:37 PM:

Re: #5
And the owners are great people, too. My husband and I went there on our honeymoon. They were so nice we go back there every year on our anniversary-and they remember us!

#16 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 08:41 PM:

This thread is starting to remind me of Feasting on Asphalt.

I keep thinking I should write to AB and try to get him to come north and do a series on places like The Blue Benn, the Vt Confectionery, and here:

#17 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 08:56 PM:

Phillippe's is a favorite stop for Dodgers fans on the way to the Stadium, I'm told.

#18 ::: PixelFish ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 09:09 PM:

I always wanted to see Bennington once before I left the Northeast because it's the Lottery town. (I missed it though. Bennington and the glowing tomb at Portsmouth, and Edward Gorey's house and E. E. Cummings grave were all on my to-see list, and did I see them? No, I did not. Obviously I shall have to return and make up for it.)

#19 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 09:16 PM:

@Stefan - Too new and too, um, upscale, although I hear Hillsboro has good Mexican food if you look in the right places.

I would head down toward McMinnville or follow 99W toward Salem and scour the boarded-up main streets looking for the places that are still open.

#20 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 09:23 PM:

Chris@13: Umm, do you always refer to wife by her last name?

It's what I mostly go by. Have for years, and not just with Macdonald.

(We also, on occasion, call each other by our old SCA names, because that was what we were doing when we met.)

#21 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 09:45 PM:

Brent's has a second location now, and they do catering too.

I second Philippe's for the french dips. The lamb is very good. The back room has some actual booths and a lot of railroad photographs and memorabilia. Their mustard is hot and sweet.

#22 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 09:50 PM:

Stefan Jones, I don't know about Hillsboro or Beaverton, but My Father's Place in Portland on Ugh... same street as the original Rejuvenation, about two blocks south of there and on the opposite side of the street- is a real diner-ish place. Or possibly a dive luncheonette.

The closest thing in Olympia (The Spar) got McMinnamoned.

#24 ::: kouredios ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 10:51 PM:

Oh, my. I live in Adams, MA (and also went to Williams; Hi mimi!), my husband grew up in Bennington--and yet we haven't been to the Blue Benn yet. I'm taking this as a sign. We've heard so many good things prior to this post, it must be time to go.

#25 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2008, 11:50 PM:

James @ #23: Roadfood may have loved Voodoo Doughnuts, but it ain't no diner! I dearly love the Voodoo, which is an ironic hipster donut shop, open 10pm to 10am. The donuts are fabulous. My favorite is the one with thick white frosting studded with Fruit Loops cereal. Sadly, they were forced to discontinue the Nyquil one.
If you buy a dozen, they pack them in a bright pink cake box stamped with "the magic is in the hole" and "good things come in pink boxes". (One feels remarkably self-conscious walking to work at 8am carrying one of these.) Voodoo is also a wedding chapel. Every mayoral election, they have a donut eating contest for the candidates — and they show up and chow down.

#26 ::: Tania ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 12:02 AM:

I got derailed at the mention of Burgoyne. Now I'm thinking about making a quilt with the Burgoyne Surrounded pattern.

I'll be thinking on diner food later.

#27 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 12:34 AM:

Roadfood may have loved Voodoo Doughnuts, but it ain't no diner!

Presumably Voodoo Doughnuts falls under the "Much Much More" in the subtitle.

#28 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 01:30 AM:

Stefan — Paradoxically, the most diner-iffic food I've had in the Portland area is in downtown Portland at the Red Coach Restaurant at 615 SW Broadway. The menu is just burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and fries — prepared just right. The milkshakes are the kind I remember from diners in New Holland, PA. They taste like milk and ice cream. Red leatherette booths, waiters and waitresses that have been working there for years. They don't take credit cards.

#29 ::: Tim Illingworth ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 02:15 AM:

Thanks for the memories - I used to eat there 25 years ago, when I had a girlfriend in Bennington.

Somewhere I still have the T-shirt, I expect...

#30 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 04:13 AM:

Do they mention anything in the San Francisco Bay Area?

Actually, what I'd really like is some place that does proper Southern food, within a reasonable approximation of driving distance of Mountain View. My wife once had actual honest-to-religion North Carolina barbecue (and greens and fried okra and all that, no less) in Chicago, so I know it's physically possible to export the stuff, but I haven't found it in this area yet, after more than a decade out here.

(Somehow, I'm pretty sure the combination Chinese take-out and "Southern Barbecue" place up the street isn't it.)

I don't so much want the barbecue, really, though some Brunswick stew like Stamey's makes would be nice, as the country ham and biscuits and peach cobbler that the National Park Concessions restaurant at Mabry Mill sells as their "daily" special.

#32 ::: Mark D. ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 07:39 AM:

Just in case you scrolled right past it, do take a look at Otto's Sausage Kitchen.

"Sausage is one of earth's divine pleasures, and we're rolling in it."

Takes a minute to load, but worth the wait!

#33 ::: Emily ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 10:56 AM:

Famous Dave's sells a barbecue approximation, but it's not very good. Too chain-y.

The only good barbecue place I know in California is in West LA/Culver City. It's a bit south of Washington and has terrible parking... can't remember the address since we'd always walk or carpool there. A neighbor insisted that a barbecue place up around Motor and Motor (the spot where it makes a sharp left turn) was also good. This knowledge leads me to think that you'd find good barbecue in mixed Hispanic/black neighborhoods that are mostly blue collar workers.

And Roscoe's is definitely one of the things I miss about LA. Not a diner, but the food is great.

#34 ::: Ambar ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 12:53 PM:

Brooks Moses@30: Have you tried Southern Kitchen? (south San Jose, and also I think Los Gatos, though I haven't been to that one). My transplanted Southerner claims they have the only real gravy in California.

For BBQ, let me recommend Trail Dust in Morgan Hill. The decor is faux country cute, but the smoked meat is real.

[all locations named are in the San Francisco Bay Area, California]

#35 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 01:07 PM:

My only question is, by "North Carolina barbecue," do you mean Eastern or Lexington style? Answer carefully; it's a holy war.

I think it's one I've lost -- I prefer Lexington style, but the rest of the U.S. thinks North Carolina barbecue means Eastern style, with the vinegar sauce. (Also people laugh at me when I say "pig pickin'." They don't think it's real.)

And Brooks, did you know that when W visited Greensboro, he went to Stamey's? I was living just a few blocks from Stamey's at the time and almost wished I'd been there.

#36 ::: JESR ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 01:21 PM:

The social critic I gave birth to insists I mention The Reef, else King Solomon's Reef, in downtown Olympia (4th between Washington and Franklin, north side of the street) to which I reply: on her word only (well, and that of her late paternal grandfather, who loved it). It was an utter dive back to the Depression and even earlier, and my family thus rejected it, but apparently it's improved since the days when the poker players in the back used to get in knife fights.

#37 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 05:38 PM:

The best indicator I know of that a barbecue joint is the real thing is the presence of an equal number of luxury sedans and gun-rack pickups in the parking lot.

Famous Dave's is okay for a chain, but that isn't the same thing as being a real barbecue joint; those are almost always one-offs. Running one isn't so much a job as a vocation.

#38 ::: Singing Wren ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2008, 08:15 PM:

Ah, barbeque. Couldn't stand the stuff as a kid. Now, I'm just incredibly picky about it.

I remember being a kid on vacation at my Grandma's house, in north-eastern Arkansas. We went out to pick up some barbeque. It was someplace on the outskirts of town (east of town, I think). Everything was handled outside. We weren't that far from the pit, and you got your order in an old glass jar. I suspect the jar used to hold something rather more potent than barbeque...

#39 ::: edward oleander ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2008, 09:37 AM:

Re: Famous Dave's

I have to throw a plug in for Famous Dave's... Dave is a Minnesota Native American who has contributed millions to the company I both work and volunteer for. He's made life more livable for hundreds of Minnesota's homeless.

We don't share B-B-Q philosophy (I favour slow cooking drenched in sauce), but Mel and I eat there occasionally out of gratitude...

#40 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2008, 10:21 AM:

Debra DOyle #37--
When we moved to the office in the Mudfarm, a co-worker and I evaluated the BBQ joint down the road on the basis of one simple factor--the number of trucks from the Nashville Gas Company and Comcast (both of these have their main offices in our neighborhood) that were in the lot. We figured that if there were four or more trucks from each of these in the lot at lunchtime (and there usually were) it was a good spot, because these guys wouldn't waste time on bad 'cue.

We were not mistaken.

As far as chains go, I think these are best when they're local chains, and are all run by the extended family.

#41 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2008, 11:46 AM:

Speaking of fine dining, here's a news item that combines two favorite topics of conversation around here: cats and food.

#42 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2008, 03:28 PM:

Bill Higgins #41:

Thank Cthulhu I'd already eaten lunch. I've been trying to remember which Lonely Planet episode in South America featured Justine and the guinea pig. Could have been Peru.

(A word to our moderators: Could "Cthulhu" be placed in the spelling list?)

#43 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2008, 04:11 PM:

"Eastern" NC style goes pretty far west; it's what my father was used to from growing up on the west edge of Charlotte. There used to be a genuine NC place up here in Gaithersburg (MD), but he's been closed about three or four years now.

If you are ever in Oshkosh, NE, the Korner Kitchen has the best burgers I've ever eaten that I didn't grill myself. They close early, though. If you go to Eddie's Supper Club in Great Falls, MT (mentioned in Roadfood) order the prime rib.

#44 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: October 19, 2008, 11:52 AM:

I know of only one genuine Diner (i.e., actual converted RR car) in Southern California (a Chinese restaurant on Santa Monica Blvd. near West Hollywood), and am not sure it's still there. But there's LeRoy's, on Huntington Drive towards the Eastern edge of Arcadia. It was purpose-built to the RR Dining-car Diner floor-plan (with a couple of additions since then) and has most of the appurtenances -- including waitresses who are either tall & skinny or short and plump, who have been or will be there for ages, and who keep an eagle-eye out for coffee cups less than a quarter-full, a section unofficially reserved for Old Geezers (now retired businessmen rather than retired farmers, as they were back in the '60s) where it's not a good idea for Outsiders to sit, lots of Workmen's Pickups parked out front very early in the morning, and regular Daily Specials (Biscuits & Gravy on Tuesdays and Thursdays is all I need to remember). Open only for breakfast & lunch, of course, and with some lunch sandwiches including alfalfa sprouts, as a gesture of Modernity (and special favor to the Yuppie lunchtime crowd). You might have to wait a bit for a table, but there's usually a space or two at the counter (& people will often move to make two adjacent ones for a couple). The food is generally, I must confess, only of Good Diner quality, not quite up to the highest standards of Traditional American Home Cooking, but plenty good enough for people like me (though my cardiologist suggests "no more than once per month").

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