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fork in the road

Famously Modern in Pawtucket, R.I., has historic sides

It's the dawn of another day in Pawtucket's East Side, and the Modern Diner already has the coffee on.

David Lyon for The Boston Globe

It's the dawn of another day in Pawtucket's East Side, and the Modern Diner already has the coffee on.

One in a series on iconic New England eateries.

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — No more welcome words were ever spoken than the simple “Coffee, hon’?” So I knew I was in the right place one recent Saturday morning when I stumbled in from the cold, just as the sun was coming up, and sidled onto a stool at the maroon- and-cream-colored Modern Diner just off Interstate 95 on Pawtucket’s East Side.

It was an eerie hour for the Modern, especially for a weekend morning. Every other time I’ve visited, customers were streaming out the doors. But with the thermometer registering in single digits, the early crowd consisted mainly of customers stopping on the way to work to pick up breakfast to go or, as one man explained, to take home to his wife who was still in bed. “She has to get up early all week,” he said, “so she deserves to sleep.”

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There may have been a time when the Modern served all-night eggs, but these days it’s breakfast and lunch — or brunch on weekends. Most Saturday mornings, customers line up for a seat in the diner. Those more interested in food than history gravitate to tables in the wooden annex, but I prefer to wait for a stool in the original section. It’s the best place to watch the diner in action.

Who needs a menu when all the specials are tacked on the wall at the entry?

David Lyon for The Boston Globe

Who needs a menu when all the specials are tacked on the wall at the entry?

The barrel-vaulted Modern with its dark wood trim and tables that fit snugly into the curves of the dining car’s shell is part of a vanishing breed. The J. B. Judkins Co. of Merrimac, Mass. — erstwhile carriage maker and builder of custom auto bodies for Locomobile, Packard, and Lincoln — started making Sterling Streamliner diners in 1939. Sources vary on how many were built before the company failed in 1942 — the highest estimate is 16. The Modern is one of only two that I’m aware of that are still in operation. (The other is the Salem Diner in Salem, Mass., which Salem State University reopened in January.)

When these cars were built, their Streamline style was a vote for speed, modern materials, and progress. Roland L. Stickney designed the Streamliners as an homage to the Burlington Zephyr streamline train, and they shared that locomotive’s sleek lines and liberal use of stainless steel. At the end of the Great Depression, they were a vote for better times.

The Modern has been a Pawtucket fixture since 1941 when it was delivered from the factory to a downtown lot at 13 Dexter St. In 1978 the Modern was the first diner ever entered on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register photo from that year shows the structure with plywood on the windows, broken neon tubes, and weeds growing up around it. In 1986 the current owners moved the diner to the East Side and restored it.

The diner classics persist, but the menu has moved forward with the times. Eggs, hash, linguiça, toast, and home fries are still mainstays, but diners in the know never look at the menu. They peruse the laminated specials cards tacked up at the entrance, which might range from homemade cheese grits and eggs to lemon poppyseed pancakes to crepes stuffed with mascarpone cheese and topped with fruit and whipped cream. One popular weekend dish is the lobster Benedict: poached eggs on English muffins with sautéed lobster, hollandaise sauce, and home fries.

But those plates have nothing on the Modern’s signature breakfast dish: the Jimmie Gimme. Like a Benedict, it includes two poached eggs on an English muffin, but the cook slips a slice of tomato between each egg and muffin, then melts white American cheese over the eggs to create a casing that keeps the yolks from running easily. It comes (of course) with home fries and bacon.

MODERN DINER 364 East Ave., Pawtucket, R.I. 401-726-8390. Mon-Sat 6 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun 7-2. Most specials $7-$12. Cash only.

David Lyon, coauthor with Patricia Harris of “Food Lovers’ Guide to Rhode Island,” can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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