I once took a vacation through Virginia with a goal of eating only in diners. The sleek and shiny metallic tubes and domes were so alluring, but the most intoxicating attention-grabbers were usually fried or baked. Please note: that was during my hollow-leg, skinny phase.
By the time my friend and I rolled over hills to Alexandria, Ky., looking for the glint of the stainless steel exterior of Harry's Hometown Diner, I was ready to relive my Southern sojourn. We were delighted to see the retro building: It had to be new construction, surrounded by grass and flowers and a gazebo in the middle of the Wal-Mart parking lot, but it looked as if bobby-soxers had danced there, with souped-up cars revving engines outside.
We were immediately greeted by smiles and cheers from behind the counter and encouraged to sit anywhere. Stark white walls contrasted with the black-and-white checked floor, red vinyl banquettes and red-topped chrome stools cupped around the counter and dotted with cake stands.
Harry's isn't a chain. The memorabilia is original, personal and eclectic, including the Reds vs. San Francisco score sheet adorned with a Frisch's Big Boy ad opposite a Bavarian Select beer promo. Native New Yorker Harry Stephens has made his diner a welcome home amid the asphalt plains outside.
Opened by Stephens and his family in March 1999, the diner re-creates a world that includes an original jukebox with tunes from the '50s and '60s. But it's the menu and the food that will really take you back in time.
We felt an unbridled need to order a Chocolate Milk Shake ($1.79) to start our adventure. Served in a plastic turquoise fountain tumbler, the shake was perfection: thick and creamy with no chalky aftertaste.
A quick survey of adjoining tables illustrated that we would get plenty of food, regardless of what type of meal we chose. I was tempted by both the CBLT Salad ($5.49), a bacon, lettuce and tomato salad with a grilled chicken breast and a choice of dressings, as well as the Fried Chicken Salad ($4.99). Although the cheeseburgers ($4.15-$5.69) at the next booth were enticing in their red plastic baskets, I was sure I didn't know anyone who could fit their mouth around the Big Bopper ($5.99), which included a one-third-pound burger with a grilled brat, Swiss cheese and onion.
After surveying the other tables, my friend and I craved some of Harry's Diner Dinners. She chose Angie's Meatloaf ($5.09), two thin slices of finely ground meat mixed with herbs and pepper, the perfect texture for a Meatloaf Sandwich ($3.99). Although relatively uninteresting on its own, the meatloaf was nicely paired with a savory, thick brown gravy with carrots and onions. Cuddled between real mashed potatoes (no garlic, no skins, no extra anything, just real mashed potatoes) and overdone canned corn, this might have been a meal for Beaver Cleaver.
The Blue Plate Special, which changes daily, that night offered all-you-can-eat Maggie's Spaghetti and Meatballs. I chose the regular order ($5.89) and was very pleased. The pasta was slick and al dente, coated with a thick, chunky tomato sauce and two large meatballs nestled amid the sauce and noodles. The sauce and meatballs were both flavorful and a good compliment to one another as well as the pasta. Accompanied by grilled egg bread doused with rich garlic butter and a tossed salad, this was a satisfying diner classic done well.
Our friendly waitress boasted of being one of the original staff. She was efficient, not overly doting, and very helpful when it came to ordering dessert.
We were murmuring about sandwiches yet to try, when our waitress started to describe the sugar temptations. Because we were persistent in finding our way to Harry's, he gave us a Brownie ($0.99), fudgy and chewy, topped with a creamy frosting. Perhaps there was a hint of cinnamon in the rich chocolate, but the confection disappeared quickly. We were not disappointed with the Chocolate Chip Cookie Pie ($2.29), warmed the way our waitress advised. Thick and gooey with melted chips, the crust was short and crisp, and the overall effect was yummy.
In colorful chef's pants, Harry toured the tables, affably checking to make sure all were enjoying their experience. He added up our tab at the counter, while personally selecting baseball cards for each child who cleaned his or her plate.
This is retro done right, by a family that cares about the community, as well as good, basic food.
Go: 6875 Alexandria Pike, Alexandria, Kentucky
Hours: Monday—Thursday: 11 a.m.—9 p.m.; Friday: 11 a.m.—10 p.m.; Saturday: 7 a.m.—10 p.m.; Sunday: Noon—9 p.m.
Payment: MasterCard and Visa
Vegetarian Friendliness: C'mon, it's a diner. But you can get a grilled cheese sandwich, fried cod, salads, sides and shakes.