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Mike Urban on New England diner history

Mike Urban acknowledges that diner cars are “a bit of an endangered species.” Over the course of two years researching “The New England Diner Cookbook: Classic and Creative Recipes From the Finest Roadside Eateries,” the Old Saybrook, Conn.-based food and travel writer said several of the places he was eyeing closed. Were it not for Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” maybe we’d have seen some more casualties. “Talking to a lot of the owners, a lot of them have been saved by his show kind of showing up on their doorstep,” says Urban, 58. His book isn’t a nostalgic look at diners, but rather a realistic portrait of their current state, including healthier recipes emerging from places once known as greasy spoons. “I didn’t feel I was doing a culinary history book as much as just trying to capture this stuff as it’s happening and evolving,” he says.

Q. Why did you concentrate on New England diners?

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A. New England is sort of the birthplace of the diner. Back in the 1870s is when diners got started, their early roots were in Providence, so this area is rich in diner history and diner food. I decided I would talk to owners, go into their kitchens, see what it is they do, how they do it, and what kinds of interesting dishes they have. It’s just really down-home American cooking for the most part, but there’s also some interesting dishes coming out of some of these places, even cutting edge-type stuff.

Q. What are the best diners in this area?

A. The top three around New England are O’Rourke’s Diner in Middletown, Conn. It’s head and shoulders above all other diners. Then the A1 Diner in Gardiner, Maine, which is up near Augusta, off the coast, and has really interesting, almost gourmet-type cooking. And the Maine Diner in Wells, Maine. In the Boston area, two favorites are Agawam up in Rowley, a really neat stainless steel-and-glass-type place, and then Betsy’s, which is in Falmouth. They’re classic-looking diners serving straight-up diner food. The Agawam is known for pies more than anything else. He does 40 to 45 pies a day. I would have named the Rosebud in Somerville but it sadly closed and now has a new owner who I’m told recently gutted the place, kept the facade, but took out all the neat old diner fixtures on the inside. Looks like that era is over.

Q. Why is O’Rourke’s head and shoulders above the others?

A. Brian O’Rourke is just very innovative. He’s been at it for years, involved through his family since the 1970s, and he’s constantly cooking different stuff up. He comes in every day and looks at what he’s got in the refrigerator, a lot is locally harvested, and he just goes into his kitchen and starts making this stuff up. It took a while for him to warm to this project because he’s doing his own cookbook. So I went over there one day to talk about it as he was closing up the place. He said, “I’m going to cook something up,” and I said, “What are you going to make?” He said, “Urban’s butternut squash.” I said, “You know somebody else named Urban?” He said, “No, I’m going to make up this recipe right here — and I’m naming it after you.” It’s in the book. He did this delightful thing. He’s kind of doing something new and special every day. In addition, he has a really great standard diner menu. He’s not just cooking free-form. He’s got all kinds of omelets, a great corned beef hash, burgers and fries, traditional diner fare.

Q. When you’re giving recipes for diner food, is it tough to replicate that heavy, cooked in oil, greasy spoon taste?

A. Yes, if you look at the ingredients, a lot of these things are rather caloric, rather heavy, and that’s sort of the basis of diner food. Diners sprouted up in places around factory towns and mill towns, where people wanted a hearty meal quick and cheap. That’s the core of diner food. If you look through the book, most of these places have gotten on the healthier food bandwagon; that is, they’ll have healthy alternatives. Sonny’s Blue Benn Diner up in Bennington, Vt., for probably 30 years now, they’ve had a vegetarian menu. But everything in moderation. You don’t want to cook diner food or eat diner food seven days a week. Especially at a time of year like this — you look outside, it’s miserable, it’s cold. You’re out shoveling snow, you need to have some calories in the oven to keep going.

Q. Did researching this make you yearn to open your own diner?

A. If you could get a little Worcester dining car not unlike the Rosebud, a place where it’s not too busy and not too big, a counter of customers, and maybe eight or 10 booths, you’re cooking on a griddle and you’ve got a few specials cooking in the back, I’d be tempted. It’s very difficult to make money doing this and it’s long, long hours. It’s really a labor of love. But these owners seem to really love what they do.

Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at glenn.yoder@globe.com.
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