[Sidebar] December 4 - 11, 1997
[Food Reviews]
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Modern Diner

Reinventing old standards for new times

by Johnette Rodriguez

364 East Avenue, Pawtucket, 726-8390
Breakfast and lunch, Mon - Sat, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Sun, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
No credit cards
No access

A Jag was easing out of the parking lot and a pickup truck pulled in behind our Toyota. We had all made the same pilgrimage: Sunday brunch at the Modern Diner, the first diner in the nation to be placed on the National Historic Register. Moved from downtown Pawtucket in 1985, it acquired an addition, the Depot Room, in 1989.

But most folks still queue up for the original diner, with its wooden booths, rounded ceiling, and front end simulating the railway car for which it is named. It is a Sterling Streamliner, manufactured in the late '30s and early '40s, and when you step inside, you feel transported into a black-and-white film.

People don't just come to this colorful eatery for the atmosphere, however. This is updated diner food, not just hash and eggs (although this, too, is available on weekends for $2.95). Handmade signs and a blackboard post daily specials, which change frequently but are apt to include such creative omelets as kielbasa-and-cheddar or a sundried tomato-feta-carmelized-onion incarnation.

French toast may be stuffed with blueberries and cream cheese; specialty pancakes might be cranberry-almond or pumpkin-walnut, as well as the more familiar berry or banana.

There is also a propensity toward Italian variations on breakfast eggs. On two recent visits, my companions both chose the grilled polenta with sauteed peppers, sausage, and eggs, plus red bliss home fries ($5.75). They lingered over the polenta, very tasty with a hint of rosemary, and the chefs had made the portions of expertly cooked peppers and sausage come out even with everything else on the plate.

I went for the "Italian eggs" ($4.95), which turned out to be an Italian version of my cousin's "toad-in-a-hole." The eggs were broken into a cutout made in thick slices of Italian bread and turned over as a whole item. Sprinkled with Parmesan and heaped with fried green and red peppers, they were quite delicious. The potatoes were parboiled and browned on the grill, not over-crisped (i.e., blackened), as can so easily happen with home fries.

On a previous visit, I'd ordered the pumpkin pancakes ($4.95). Three enormous pancakes arrived, and I was able to contentedly munch my way through two of them. Nearby pancake-eaters also remarked on their size, and they were visiting from Texas! In fact, their Rhode Island relative, an official at Brown University, said she always brings her family to the Modern, because she knows they won't leave hungry.

No, just curious -- eager to try all the other possibilities on the menu, including the lunchtime offerings of such classics as meatloaf, liver and onions, corned beef and cabbage (Thursdays only) and fish and chips (Fridays only). Breakfast is served all day, but please, no poached eggs after 11 a.m. on the weekdays -- too much activity in the kitchen to give them the proper attention.

Diners originated in Providence, where horse-drawn canteens used to sell coffee and snacks to people who worked the night shift. Still, while diners prepared the way for today's fast-food restaurants and the Modern has its own version of an egg-McMuffin (called the Jimmie Gimme), it is no McDonald's. The skill and imagination in the kitchen, combined with friendly, patient, and helpful service, make the Modern a place to linger over coffee and a Sunday newspaper.

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