The landmark Joe's Diner offers old-fashioned diner food and great coconut cream pie —just like Grandma use to make.
LEE, Mass. — It's not exactly good. Not exactly charming either, not really anything but what it is.
If you go to Joe’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner it won't take you long to figure it out.
Joe's is a diner, that is to say, Joe's is a throwback to the old days, the very old days, before many of us were even born, before microwaves or even TV dinners when single working folks, men especially, would routinely take their meals at little roadside spots every day. Eventually many of these men settled down, raised a family and ate their meals at home but until they did, they went to places like Joe's to get their daily nourishment.
Norman Rockwell knew this when he painted "The Runaway" using Joe's as a model. Naturally, the little boy, thinking he's big enough to go his own way, went where the grown-up working men went, to a diner.
Joe's is still that kind of restaurant. It hasn't changed a bit. Seriously — except that now, you can buy a T-shirt or a cream soda with Joe's name on it.
At Joe's, you can still have liver and onions for supper, you can get your roast beef with green beans or boiled carrots and a boiled potato on Fridays. Your milkshake comes in a glass with the metal container on the side. Portions are reasonable, satisfying, not mammoth. You can have breakfast whenever you want (or need) to but what you get is going to be plain, mom-style food.
We went on Thursday, which is corned beef night. For $7.95 you can have the traditional New England boiled dinner; corned beef, cabbage, carrots and a boiled potato, served with hot mustard and/or vinegar. Just like your grandfather would have eaten after his shift on the railroad or at the mill. You can choose to have a sandwich instead but the boiled dinner is the real deal — plain as gingham and just as all-American.
Young working men, newly living on their own, love dessert of course. After all, back in the day they weren't much more than boys. And this is where Joe's really shines.
You'd swear your grandmother made their pies. The night we went, we had two classic diner choices, actually, we planned to share one but it was so good there wasn't enough to go around. The coconut cream pie is among the best I've ever had. Great crust, perfect custard filling, just a plate full of yum. If you prefer chocolate cream, that's even better. The tapioca pudding (yes, someone still serves tapioca pudding) is light and creamy and redolent of sweet vanilla, topped with cinnamon and a dollop of whipped cream, I could eat it all day.
But the real reason to go to Joe's isn't the food, it's the people. Maybe they're remembering their early days alone, I didn't ask, but the night we went the place was full of local guys chatting and joking with the waitresses, telling all the local gossip and laughing out loud.
Within minutes we felt like part of the gang, talking about the "adult entertainment" shop down the road, the wedding announcements in the local paper, who was going where and buying what — all of it. We learned a lot about Lee in a dinner hour and I'm pretty sure you would, too.
Breakfast at Joe’s is pretty famous, it routinely gets great reviews online and Jan and Michael Stern's road food website says it's worth a detour. Late-night host Jimmy Fallon made sure to stop in a couple years ago. I didn't find it to be much different from any other diner breakfast, but I would definitely pull over for a slice of that pie and a hot cup of Joe.
Postscript: Rumor has it Joe's will be closing their doors for good in January 2013 so if you want to get your own piece of Americana for the memory book, best do it now. First opened in 1939, the Lee landmark was operated for more than 45 years by the now legendary Joe Sorrentino, until being sold in 2000.
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