In the novel that we’re in together, you and I, dear reader, we are vacationing by the sea. We’ve brought our suitcases, the old, heavy kind with leather straps, and our hats stowed snugly in hatboxes. We stroll by the water, and when evening comes we adjourn to the dining room — walls lined in polished dark wood, chandeliers aglow — to engage in pleasant talk with our fellow travelers. “The sea is a balm for the soul,” muses the distinguished gentleman from abroad. “Shall I read to you now?” the governess asks her invalid ward. “The Winthrop Arms has the finest mac and cheese,” says the coquettish young lady with the lapdog.
Never you mind that the cast of characters at the Winthrop Arms Hotel & Restaurant is more likely to include a wisecracking octogenarian who’s lived around the corner her whole life, a frazzled mom with two fussy toddlers, teenage brothers who are clearly regulars wordlessly wolfing their meals, and assorted local barflies and eccentrics. (Did you know Sylvia Plath lived in Winthrop?) The Arms first opened in 1916 and was one of the North Shore’s largest hotels at the time; Babe Ruth apparently used to stay here. Sadly, a ballroom and live orchestra are no longer part of the experience. Often such places are ghosts, faded and rundown, reminders of former glory. But this one is a time capsule, with its tile mosaic floors, swaths of mahogany, and stained glass — so carefully kept that, upon entering, you feel you’ve stepped directly into another era.
On a Sunday, slide into a blue Naugahyde booth for brunch. Owner David “Doc” Goll, who purchased the place in 1978, will come by to talk up the fresh-baked blueberry muffins. He’s not trying to sell them — everyone gets one anyway — he just seems proud of them. (Goll calls his customers “doctor,” delivers the same one-liners repeatedly with gusto, and knows when to drop a bag of extra blueberry muffins at the table as a parting gift. Eat at the most formal restaurants in town and you still won’t find a more unerring sense of hospitality.) The waitress takes your order and disappears into the kitchen singing. The Bloody Mary is utterly classic, bare-bones and perfect. Dishes have names like eggs Pompeii and eggs a la Jean. There are crepes. You can get steak with a seafood omelet.
Dinner brings clams casino, Caesar salad, baked stuffed scrod, liver with onions and bacon. Prime rib is served on Fridays and Saturdays. You’ll definitely want a martini with that.
But the Arms is probably best known for two dishes: the macaroni and cheese and the chicken pot pie. One reason is that Goll sells them so persuasively. Next time it snows, he’ll tell you, forget about going to the grocery store: Just stock up on the pot pies. Get a half-dozen to go and don’t even worry about it.
It’s a solid plan. The pies are brimming with bites of chicken, carrots, and peas bound loosely together with well-seasoned sauce, topped off with a flaky crust. You’d be foolish not to bring at least one home. Goll will give you a handy magnet printed with instructions on how to bake it.
As for the macaroni and cheese, so creamy and golden-brown on top, everybody who comes here knows to order it.
And if you live in Winthrop, you probably come here. The spot is beloved. To most of us, this town is a place we fly over on our way to elsewhere. Locals have the last laugh, with their seaside strolls and killer views and neighbors who are also friends. I once sent West Coast visitors to Belle Isle Seafood for a last taste of New England on their way home. They texted me from Logan: “Why doesn’t everyone live in Winthrop?” Fair question.
A friend who lives a five-minute walk from the Winthrop Arms says one of life’s great pleasures is day-drinking in the lounge, sprawled on the couches, as the snow falls outside.
I’m just watching the weather, waiting for my chance.
130 Grovers Ave., Winthrop, 617-846-4000, www.winthroparms.comDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.