One in a series on James Beard Foundation America’s Classics eateries in New England.
MANCHESTER, CONN. — Let me tell you about Shady Glen. My hometown eatery is one of the newest entries into the James Beard Foundation’s pantheon of America’s Classics. Dairy farmers John and Bernice Rieg founded their “modern ice cream parlor” (as the first advertising deemed it) in the still-rural east end of town in 1948. Their ice cream, made in small-batch freezers in the basement, was an instant hit.
On Sunday afternoons, my parents, grandparents, and I would pile into our Ford Galaxie and head to Shady Glen for ice cream cones. My mother favored mocha chip and my grandmother always ordered the bright green and terribly exotic-seeming pistachio. In those days of single-scoop cones, I agonized between chocolate chip and deep purple black raspberry.
I still remember sitting on a stool at the counter with my mother and some neighborhood friends the first time that I was allowed to order a regular rather than a junior hot fudge sundae. It was a significant milestone in my sweets-loving family. Later I passed my teenage dating years over milkshakes and cheeseburgers in one of the coveted booths.
Those cheeseburgers, in fact, have made Shady Glen famous far and wide, and that’s not just hometown pride talking. Paul Newman, James Cagney, and innumerable politicians have made their way to Manchester to try the burgers.
According to Bill Hoch, who began working at Shady Glen in 1954 and now owns and runs the shop with his son Billy, Bernice invented the signature cheeseburger when she was looking for something unusual to add to the menu. The patties are topped with slices of cheese that are allowed to drape over the edges and sizzle on the grill until they’re crisp. Then the grill cook coaxes the edges up with a spatula to form a golden crown. “She discovered it totally by accident,” says Billy. “It was divine intervention.”
Each burger is capped with a generous four slices of American cheese and today Shady Glen goes through 21 tons of the product per year. “We work with dairies to make the cheese to our specifications,” says Billy. “You can’t buy an American cheese in the store that will work.”
The uninitiated have sometimes suggested that the cheese resembles plastic. But even the most mean-spirited are usually won over to the “Bernice Original.” Cheesefurters are also on the menu, and those in the know sometimes order a plate of plain crisp cheese. (It’s not on the menu but lots of youngsters like to make a meal of cheese and fries.)
I wasn’t surprised that the James Beard Foundation decided to honor Shady Glen. I just wondered what took them so long. Bill Hoch even brought down the house at the black tie awards gala in New York when he rose to the podium and thanked the James Bond Foundation for the honor. With a nudge from wife Annette, he soon recovered, and later enjoyed some good-natured kidding from the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse.
“This is like a lifetime achievement award for my father,” says Billy, who has logged almost 40 years in the family shop himself. “You eat, sleep, and drink this business.”
In my mind, the Beard Foundation has also recognized all the families like mine who have made Shady Glen a part of their lives. It’s comforting to know that whatever else might change, Shady Glen will be the same. The smiling waitresses will wear their hopelessly old-fashioned uniforms with white aprons, water will be served in waxed paper cups, milkshakes will be placed on paper doilies, and every burger will come with a condiment tray of ketchup, mustard, relish, and onions.
“We’ve seen three generations of customers,” says Billy. Shady Glen is a family place in more ways than one. “My dad, my brother, and I all met our wives here,” he says, noting that many other staff members have courted and married. “It must be something in the cheese!”
Shady Glen Original location 840 East Middle Turnpike, 860-649-4245;
also at Manchester Parkade, 360 West Middle Turnpike, 860-643-0511. Sandwiches and burgers $3.30-$5.80.