Let’s talk about diners this week. There’s a good description of what a diner is in Wikipedia. There are several examples of diner types locally. I’d call the New Ideal in Aberdeen a typical small town USA diner. It definitely looks like a diner and is oriented mainly around a counter, stools, and booths. The Ballpark in Dublin does not have the same look at all, but has the right vibe and menu so it meets the wiki’s diner definition.
Then there is the Double T (TT) of Bel Air. It is the closest thing in my neighborhood to what I call a “Finer Diner.” Throughout New York, New Jersey, Southeastern PA, and Connecticut, there are countless examples of these FDs. The counter is mostly for show and the most patrons are served in booths and tables. Many have a true dining room and bar service. The menu must be large and diverse, the portions gargantuan, and at the really good ones, the food is fresh and flavorful. Inevitably, the first thing you see upon entering is a lavish pastry display filled with a tantalizing assortment of in-house baked goodies. There be a large rotating choice of daily specials, efficient waitstaff, and often offer early bird and senior citizen menus. One of my favorites of this type is the Clairmont in West Windsor, NJ. Generally, it meets all of my expectations and I always leave satisfied and with a box of leftovers.
Having lived in Harford since 1974, I was really glad when the TT opened on Route 24. I’ve dined there countless times, always hoping for a duplicate of the real FD experience. So, let’s see if my most recent experience measures up.
As a test, I recently ordered a roast chicken dinner at the TT and the Clairmont. At about 13 dollars, it usually comes with a salad, soup, a half chicken and two sides.
Bread: TT offers up a basket of stale challah. (They have to stop calling it chaluah.) Clairmont, a basket of assorted sweet rolls and some crusty rye bread.
Soup: TT’s Chicken soup tastes of salt and contains noodles that are flabby and overcooked. The added veggies appear to be yesterday’s leftovers. Clairmont serves a clear chicken broth that tastes like chicken with a large matzoh ball.
Salad: TT’s house salad appears to be a precut deal out of a bag, mostly iceberg, nee grape tomato, some shards of cabbage and carrot and some cukes. Clairmont offers a rather extensive salad bar with 2 types of fresh lettuce, spinach, and a variety of veggies, a vestige of the day when every eatery seemed to go the salad bar route.
Entree: TT’s ½ roasted chicken is overdone, probably due to an oven reheating. Skin is flabby, the meat has a nice taste, though even the dark meat is dry. The gravy on the side is over thickened and tastes mainly of salt. A spoon will almost stand up in it. Stuffing under the bird is quite gloppy and wet, but actually has a satisfying flavor. Steamed broccoli is overcooked, but still has some brightness and a bit of crunch. My plain baked potato is satisfactory, but obviously sat for a while in the kitchen.
Clairmont’s chicken is overdone, but not to the same extent. Skin has some crispness. It appears to have been reheated under a broiler. Stuffing is more of a crouton base and has some crunch, which is more to my liking. Vegetable and potato choices are more varied than at TT. Crisp fried zucchini and a baked sweet potato are quite good. Gravy is also on the side, it is of thinner consistency, and while salty it has some poultry and vegetable characteristics
Included dessert: At TT dessert is not included. The Clairmont offers pudding, jello, or ice cream. A nice touch, but I’d rather have one of the black and white cookies in the pastry case.
I really want to like the Double T. The owners have extensive experience in the food business. They also have connections with their fellow diner owners north of the Mason Dixon Line and even have some deliveries from the dreaded NJ. The kitchen appears to be happy putting out food that is just satisfactory. Could it be that the ownership is overextended, having so many locations in the Baltimore area? I asked the Clairmont’s proprietor his opinion. He says he knows the Double T guys and feels that a diner needs to be managed by the owners in order for it to achieve culinary glory.
I’m looking forward to readers’ opinions about this establishment. Have I been ordering the wrong things? Is there a better example of a FD in Harford County?
Oh, I see I have a Styrofoam box of leftovers in the fridge. I love that cold stuffing. Happy eating!