It’s hard to miss the A1 Diner. Perhaps it’s because the restaurant is one of the few bright spots of activity in downtown Gardiner, on a main street that must have been adorable once, but that now has an empty storefront with a “for rent” sign mirroring every other still-struggling independent retail space. Or maybe it’s simply because you don’t see an awful lot of 1940s-era Worcester Lunch Cars in pristine condition, deco chrome glinting in the sunlight, floating in midair atop a set of steel pilings, at traffic-level next to a bridge.
When the restaurant opened in 1946, the diner served fast, hot, home cooked meals to a hungry factory worker population (we didn’t call it “comfort food” back then, because instead of sitting on the Internet all day taking pictures of sandwiches and inventing cutsie food terms, people were busy having horrific sawmill accidents). The diner has reinvented itself several times over in its nearly 70-year history, changing owners and restaurant names several times, as it has worked hard to keep up with current trends. This innovation and ability to reinvent itself has given the A1 Diner its longevity, and has led to the unusual menu served today.
Jillian: I didn’t know why he was driving me to a diner in Gardiner. It seemed like a long way to go for slimy eggs and wiggly bacon in a sad old town that time forgot. As we turned right onto the town’s main street, I became more hopeful. This was a cute town, and perhaps something cool was happening here after all. Then I saw the antique car, the classic, long, narrow interior all wood-paneled and stocked with original stools and red-lettered menu signage. As we settled into the booth and took a long around, I realized that there was a creativity being employed I hadn’t anticipated. I didn’t know then that it was a thing, a place already discovered by that fat Magellan of the obvious.
The unusual menu? In spite of its conventional appearance, the A1 Diner has its share of surprises. The first thing that indicated we might be on to something a little out of the ordinary was the outstanding beer and wine list, sitting laminated next to a menu at every table. When you can sit down in a leather booth and crack a Maudite or a Delirium Tremens with your blue-plate pot roast special, it’s clear that the owners are paying attention. A quick run through the menu revealed the classic diner fare we expected, including fried chicken, meatloaf and gravy, and an assortment of burgers made with locally-sourced Oaklands Farms beef. Allow your eye to wander to the black plastic board with the slide-on letters above the counter that runs the length of the restaurant, however, and all hell breaks loose.
The A1 Diner has at least a dozen daily specials, that definitely escalate standard lunchcar fare to the level of modern American cuisine, with dishes that you never expect to see in a diner. When we have dined there, for example, the restaurant was also slinging plates of chicken mole tacos, flank steak, ginger-carrot soup, and curried beef meatloaf, all passed from the kitchen through a tiny window, with the accompanying “ding” of a bell indicating each new order. It’s a diner, sure; but it’s a diner that happens to also make a mean pan-seared duck breast and a flavorful cardamom-spiked North African lamb stew.
On our most recent visit, we were after more traditional diner fare, which the A1 Diner also (mostly) delivers well. Because I am watching my figure, I opted for the hot meatloaf sandwich ($8.99), covered in brown gravy. A massive tower of thick-cut, pillowy-soft country white bread, served closed-face around an enormous stack of three thick slices of meatloaf, each piece seared on the flattop for extra crust. A drizzle of satisfyingly salty brown gravy was deemed insufficient by the waitress, who immediately brought me a sidecar of the finest brown sauce ever to come out of a bottle of Gravy Master, which I happily emptied onto my sandwich. The meatloaf was a tiny bit crumbly, but this is a knife-and-fork sandwich, and once everything gets covered in gravy, it hardly matters.
Jillian: I noted the list of Belgian beers, the curried this, the mole that, and then I ordered a cheeseburger. I can’t help it, it’s just where I’m living these days. And I think, if you have a restaurant, even one that is innovating, nay, especially one that is experimenting and bringing new flavors to a conventional setting, you have to make a great burger. At the very least, one that is passable. My standards are not that high. Just feed me meat. Sadly, the cheeseburger I ordered that day fell very short of my tropospheric expectations. A burnt hockey puck on a stale, too-big bun, topped with queer-tasting relish (that I asked for). I also asked for it to be cooked medium-rare. Actually, she asked me. The waitress, that is. If you don’t care to know, I will accept my burger as it comes. But they inquired, and so I specified. And that apparently had no bearing on how long they kept it on the grill, which must have been hours, days even. The meat tasted like nothing more than dead grill, seventy-year-old carbon. I couldn’t detect the cheese, and ripped off and cast aside the majority of the crusty-in-a-bad-way bread that it was nestled in. I’ve had better burgers in Mexico, on a bus, in a gymnasium, at four in the morning. (Not all at once. I’m not a pervert.) My lunch was a disappointment, after all. I felt betrayed. I went from not caring, to great expectations, to bland resignation, in a matter of minutes. It was like prom night all over again. I don’t have the energy for this kind of emotional trapeze work. Not now.
In New England, there are plenty of mid-century diners remaining, most having been handed down among family members, or purchased by aging hipster dotcom burnouts. For the most part, these diners seem content to focus almost entirely on the nostalgic elements of their businesses, turning out mediocre $3 bacon-and-egg plates with weak cups of coffee, with the expectation that you will be dazzled by the neon, the jukebox, and the restaurant’s pedigree. Rarely do they make any effort to reinvent themselves, and it is here that the A1 Diner manages to excel, turning out inexpensive, surprisingly modern dishes in an environment you would expect to be covered in a thick fog of Elvis records and poodle skirts. Rather than coasting on nostalgia, it’s refreshing to see a diner make an effort with their menu, and for the most part (with the exception of Jillian’s cheeseburger), the anachronism works.
[BONUS!] Summon every last ounce of strength in your being, go to your quiet place, and try to tune out Guy Fieri’s inappropriate sunglasses-positioning long enough to enjoy the A1 Diner’s segment on an episode of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.”