Arleen Harkins remembers falling in love with her husband Sam, decades ago. They both worked for Philip Morris, in sales. “It was love at first…I don’t know how many sights,” she says with a smile.
About another love of her life, Harkins can be more accurate: The couple first saw the Historic Village Diner on a Friday more than 35 years ago. By Monday, they were its new owners. “That was love at first sight. I wasn’t even into culinary things at all; I’m self-taught,” she says. The wonder of her precipitous plunge into a business that she knew nothing about still colors her voice today.
They’d bought a diner that even then was a classic of its type: a Silk City Diner, known in its day as the Cadillac of diners. Even if you’ve not visited the place at its current (but not original) site on North Broadway in Red Hook, you’ve seen the place. Silk City Diners were prefabricated roadside restaurants modeled after railroad club cars by an outfit in Paterson, New Jersey, their ubiquity masked by a sleek exterior cladding of stainless steel. Roughly 1,500 of them were turned out by the company between 1926 and 1966.
The diner’s interior further emulates its railroad model, with tables in booths along the east and west walls, beneath a vaulted ceiling. Much of the interior is original-issue, such as the tiled floor and black-and-turquoise wainscoting. The counter’s original Formica top bears the dark wear marks of hundreds of thousands of elbows bent over as many cups of coffee and servings of roadside cuisine as 66 years can contain.
The social importance of the roadside American diner was immortalized in 1982, in Barry Levinson’s nostalgic film Diner. But before then, the diner was the kind of place that Hollywood loved – the kind of place where you found Burt Lancaster slumped hopelessly over a cup of java in The Killers, the perfect place to hatch a murder plot in both movie versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice.
To visit the Historic Village Diner today is to step into a vanishing example of not only Hollywood-tinged midcentury roadside Americana, but also a vanishing way of life for the people who make the diner what it is today. Consider: How many other businesses do you know that have been around as long as this, or one that’s been operated by the same family for half its existence (the diner has had two other locations since its construction in 1951)?
And this: Melissa Wambach, who is a business partner with Arleen and Sam, started working at the diner when she was 14 years old, when she came on as a dishwasher. Other employees have worked there for 18, 19 and 20 years. She has seen food fads come and go. The food they serve is pretty much what was in demand the day they bought the place – what Arleen calls “American comfort food.”
She’ll see 40 pounds of meatloaf disappear in a day, maybe two days tops. She can’t make enough homemade stroganoff to keep the regulars happy. “Sam and I try to keep ourselves educated. We try new things. But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’m not gonna shove it down your throat, you know? I’m not gonna serve you a cardboard hamburger because it’s vegan. I can’t do that.”
Arleen, who’s 63, and Sam, who’s a year older, tried retirement some years back. She shrugs, rolls her eyes at the memory.
It’s not an easy life, doing things the way they used to be done. Arleen has had five back surgeries. “I’ve got a new knee, new hip, even new knuckles,” she says. “It’s all part of the game; that’s it, that’s how we do it. We’ll be here for a while yet, until we can’t walk anymore, ’cause it’s my passion…You’ve got to love what you do.”
The Historic Village Diner is open daily from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. and located at 7550 North Broadway in Red Hook. For more information, call (845) 758-6232 or visit www.historic-village-diner.com.