Friday, September 21, 2012


What is it about old-fashioned diners that's so appealing? If you're my age and remember sitting at a soda fountain sipping a just-mixed chocolate malt and listening to tunes on a jukebox that played 45 RPM records, I suppose it's simple nostalgia for a time when things seemed, well, for want of a better description, less plugged in. Our fingers savored the icy cold of the aluminum container the malt was mixed in, not pushing buttons to send a text message. We were worried we might not make it to the library before it closed to do research for our science paper, not whether the storm would knock out the WiFi so we couldn't Google the information we needed.

Whatever the reason, diners do have something of universal appeal. While we don't actively seek them out -- most don't serve alcohol, and we like a glass of beer or wine with our meals -- when my husband Jack and I happen upon one that looks interesting, we try to stop. For several years when we drove to the southwestern part of the Buckeye State to visit my parents, for instance, we'd have lunch at the Rockin' Robin Diner in Urbana. Closer to home, we enjoy the occasional lunch or dinner at the Steel Trolley Diner in Lisbon or the Emerald Diner in Hubbard (the latter, it pains me to report, was gutted by a fire recently; hopefully, it will be rebuilt and reopened).

Happily, there's another terrific diner in Sharon, Pa. - Donna's Diner. Owned by Donna Winner, it's smack dab in the middle of town and open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week and, as the sign says, home of the "Winnerburger."

Not too long ago, we rounded up our usual foodie friends Jerry and Barb and headed over for lunch - the first time any of us had eaten here. The first thing we noticed - except perhaps for the '50s songs that can be heard from the sidewalk - is the size; this diner seems wider and longer than most we've been in. That said, the interior is quite typical, with lots of old-time decorations on the walls like Coca-Cola posters, a black-and-white diamond pattern floor, shiny chrome soda fountain stools with red sears and swirly-patterned Formica tops on the booth tables. There are no individual jukeboxes at the tables, but there's a very large one near the front entrance.

The menu here takes a while to digest, so we took our time; there are loads of burgers, for instance, but none of us was quite in the mood we vowed to return to try a couple. Pittsburgh Steelers fan Barb said she might try the Ben RoethlisBurger (which comes with Heinz catsup), but the rest of us -- Cleveland Browns fans all -- agreed we'd pass on that one. 

Following my usual custom at diners, I ordered a chocolate milkshake ($4.99) from the "regular" shake list. There are specialty shakes and malts as well, like turtle and banana strawberry, priced a bit higher. Also on the fountain menu are brown cows - root beer and ice cream floats and a favorite of my late mother - as well as black cows (the same only with Coke).

Ever the fish lover, I finally decided on one of the Blue Plate Specials, the Sea Cruise (a half order of Yuengling battered haddock for $6.99) with Baby Twist (macaroni and cheese) and cottage cheese as my sides. Then, I couldn't resist adding an order of Roman Holiday, or sweet potato puffs with brown sugar dipping sauce ($2.99).

As you may have guessed, most of the foods here have names straight from the '50s, like the Rockin' Rueben, The Platters (roast beef), Blueberry Hill, Hopelessly Devoted (pancakes), Teardrops on My Pillow (an omelet, sausage patties and hash browns), Rock Around the Clock (cobb salad) and Nat King Cole Slaw.

Jack also went with fish of sorts, ordering the Charlie Tuna, a tuna melt sandwich with American cheese, lettuce and tomato and cole slaw as his side ($5.99). Barb settled on The Audrey, a turkey reuben with the usual fixings on marbled rye ($6.99). For sides, she picked grilled veggies and Coolsville Chips, which are homemade potato chips sprinkled with parmesan cheese.

Jerry started with Thunderbird, or chili topped with shredded cheddar, diced onion and a dollop of sour cream with tortilla chips on the side ($2.99) for a cup. His sandwich choice was the Sinatra, hot roast beef with provolone, grilled onions and horseradish sauce on grilled white bread and served au jus ($7.99).

The slaw was especially good; the pinkish cast, we concluded must be a result of having a bit of fresh horseradish in it. My milkshake was wonderful - on the thick side and topped with whipped cream and a cherry (as is the custom, I got part of it in a glass and the rest in the cold aluminum mixing container). It was so chocolatey and creamy it could have been a meal in and of itself.

The sweet potato puffs were outstanding and quite unique -- a little crispy on the outside and soft inside but cut in smallish cubes rather than fries. Served with a sugary dipping sauce, they were, we all decided, worth the trip. Another standout was the marble bread on Barb's sandwich, and my mac and cheese offered a "twist" in that it's made from spiral pasta and baked with bread cubes on top. Both Jerry and Jack loved their sandwiches, and my fish was delicious and a generous chunk given that it was a half order.

Our next visit was just the two of us, this time on our way back home from a photography outing at McConnell's Mill State Park and the historic village of Volant, Pa. Jack couldn't resist ordering that same Charlie Tuna and slaw -- it was that good -- while I settled on the Route 66 chicken salad. It's a special blend that includes grapes and pineapple ($4.99) and it sounded great. I upgraded the standard chips to a side of those sweet potato puffs I'd loved the first time around (for a slight extra charge). This time no dipping sauce was served, but it really didn't matter because the outside coating is very sweet. Once again, they were delicious.

Because I love to eat breakfast just about any time -- you'll find us often at a late lunch at Bob Evans, for instance, where I always get the bowl of sausage gravy with two biscuits and home fries -- I should note that breakfast foods are served any time at Donna's. One of these days I'll have to try Donna's signature eggs, or fluffy scrambled eggs with cream cheese and chives with home fries and bacon, ham or sausage and toast for $6.99. Or, maybe it'll be the Bye Bye Birdie, two slices of bread with an egg nestled in the center of each slice grilled and served with bacon, ham or sausage and home fries ($5.99). Seeing that on the menu brought back [mostly] happy memories of high school home economics classes, where I first made egg-centered grilled toast -- just about the first thing I ever learned to cook!

If you go:

Donna's Diner
10 W. State St.
Sharon, PA 16146
(724) 346-7373

Open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.

Friday, September 7, 2012


As any fan of the TV classic "Cheers" can tell you, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name; they're always glad you came, and so are you. For more years than I lived within the borders, there almost always was a place like that in Niles. Even before I married my husband Jack, we spent quality time on college breaks at Jerry's Inn on Mason Street. Once we'd settled in, we enjoyed some great breakfasts at The Spot restaurant downtown.

Later, our two kids tagged along to the Silver Nugget; and many an evening meal was washed down with a draught beer or two at the Old Main Ale and Chowder House deftly poured by 6-foot, 9-inch owner Hugh McGarrity (and later by his not-so-tall brother, Mark, an author who wrote many whodunits under the pen name Bartholomew Gill).

But that was then; and ever since the Old Main building was razed to make way for the William McKinley Birthplace Home, nothing really came along to take its place.

Until now, that is. After following the construction progress on Facebook, we were delighted to learn that the new Stoneyard Grill and Tavern opened Aug. 16 in downtown Niles almost directly across from the McKinley Home. The building, which formerly housed a pharmacy, has been renovated inside and out to provide more interior space as well as a small, walled-in outdoor patio. 

Needless to say, we wasted little time getting there, although we gave it a few days for the big rush of traffic to fade a bit. Picking up friends Jerry and Barb who live in Niles, we hit the parking lot around 6:15 on Tuesday of the first full week of business. There are front and side entrances; the side, which we used because we'd parked closer to that one, opens into the bar. Keep walking down the hall and you'll come to a slightly larger dining room.

The decor is very clean and crisp, with stone on some of the walls, a fireplace in the bar and blonde booths and tables with black backs and legs. No fewer than seven flat-screen TV sets adorn the walls on the bar side, and another four are in the dining room.

The menu isn't what I'd call extensive, but at the same time, there are plenty of choices; while we looked at the possibilities, we ordered draught beers (16-ounce domestics are just $2, although for specialties like Sam Adams Oktoberfest, also on tap, the price jumps to $3.50). When we asked about drink specials, our server told us they're still trying to work out a schedule.

For starters, we picked beer battered onion rings ($5.99) and hot peppers in oil ($4.99 and served with bread) as appetizers to share. The onion rings, which come with a tasty but unidentifiable dipping sauce, were absolutely out of this world; one bite and we wished we'd have doubled up on the order. The peppers contain both jalapenos and Hungarian in a very flavorful oil. The jalapenos had a noticeable kick -- the other three liked the taste but deemed them a little too hot for their liking (so happily, I ended up eating most of them).

There are several burgers, pizzas and dinner salads on the menu as well as more expensive dinner entrees like the Flat Iron Sirloin (10-oz. Angus beef for $13.99) and "The Presidential," a 12-oz. certified Angus beef New York Strip steak with the restaurant's signature blend of seasoning named in honor of former President McKinley ($21.99). But we didn't want to spend quite that much, so I finally settled on the Stoneyard Fish Fry (haddock) for $8.99. Most dinner entrees come with a salad and one side, so I picked sweet potato fries and bleu cheese dressing on the salad. Seafood was Barb's choice too - Puff Shrimp, or Yuengling battered deep fried tiger shrimp for $8.99. She, too, wanted bleu cheese, and her other side was a baked potato with butter and sour cream.

The "boys" were chicken pickers, with Jack's choice being the marinated Italian chicken, or two breasts charbroiled in Italian marinade for $9.99. Cole slaw was an easy choice of side, and when the server suggested the homemade citrus viniagrette dressing, he quickly agreed.

Jerry's chicken was in the form of pasta - Chicken & Broccoli Aglio E Olio - for $10.99. It was described as a sauteed breast with broccoli and minced garlic tossed in olive oil over penne. Pasta dinners come with a salad only, and Caesar was his dressing choice.

I'll say straight out that the salads were among the best we've had anywhere; for openers, they consist of chopped mixed greens, tomatoes and onions and served in what looks like soup bowls with handles (really cool). The dressings, especially that citrus viniagrette, are outstanding.

As for the entrees, our verdicts were somewhat mixed. My haddock was an enormous plank - at least a foot long and probably 4 inches across at the widest point. Better still, it was coated with the same batter as those wonderful onion rings. The sweet potato fries were cut almost into julienne strips, but they tasted fine and the brown sugar dip was good as well. Barb's shrimp also had that tempura-style batter, and the shrimp were substantial in size so she was pleased as well.

The chicken dishes, however, didn't get such high marks - largely because flavor was noticeably lacking in both. If there was any garlic in the pasta, it was hiding, and the broccoli was crisp enough to suggest it hadn't been cooked at all. Jack's chicken breasts - while perfectly cooked and tender - were totally ho-hum with not the slightest hint of Italian influence.

Of course, any new restaurant is bound to experience some growing pains and, hopefully, will learn from both experience and customer feedback. Not long after the opening, in fact, a new list of weekday lunch specials debuted - 7 meals under $7 - a definite plus that will mean we're more likely to visit more often (there's a BBQ pork sandwich with Stoneyard chips for $6.99, for instance).

Chalk it up to getting your feet wet, we said - we'll definitely give this place another try, if only because we're rooting for it to be a big success. And go back we did, only this time it was for lunch and just the two of us. We asked to sit on the bar side, which, generally speaking, is our preference (yes, that's me in the photo). That fireplace, we decided, would be a big plus on cold winter days (we're assuming, of course, that it's a real wood-burning fireplace). 

We looked long and hard at the appetizer list, but since many of them cost almost as much as a sandwich platter and we just weren't that hungry at lunchtime we decided to pass this time out. Some of the sandwiches sounded intriguing, like Cajun Steak & Pepper ($9.99) and "original" Italian sausage (1/2 lb. for $8.99). Finally, Jack settled on chicken salad on a croissant for $8.99 - which probably would have been my choice had he not beat me to it and we wanted to sample different items. The "Dachshund," a large hot dog with brown mustard the menu claims would "make Harry Stevens proud" caught my eye ($7.99), so that was my pick of the sandwich litter.

For those who don't know, the late Harry M. Stevens, who was from Niles, is credited as being the first person to wrap a frankfurter in a piece of bread, a treat that would later become known as the hot dog.

One of the side substitute options on the menu is soup (instead of the fries that come with sandwiches), but our server told us the soup recipies were "still being perfected" so there were none as yet. So, I decided to pay the additional buck for some of those fabulous onion rings once again (and I got a fairly substantial pile for my money, I hasten to add).

The chicken salad was absolutely to die for (since it was my first choice I just had to have a sample), and while I have no idea how proud good old Harry would be, the hot dog really was huge and quite delicious, with a flavor something of a cross between a hot dog and kielbasa. In fact, I'd love to see it on the menu sans bun with some sauerkraut - my mouth is watering just thinking about it. 

The day after Labor Day, Jack and I popped in again for lunch, this time greeted by a server we "met" when we were sort of regulars at a casual eatery in Eastwood Mall who's now working here (see what I mean about where everybody knows you)? This time, we were interested in sampling something from that 7 Under $7 lunch menu. Jack had no problem, deciding on the two sliders with cole slaw for $6.99. From the three choices of pulled pork, hamburger and turkey burger, he went with the pulled pork - in the end, a good decision.

I considered the half-chicken salad sandwich option and inquired about the soup (they now serve French onion and chili), but I ended up ignoring the cheap lunch menu and ordered a burger instead: The Backyard Barbecue ($8.99), with a 1/2-pound Angus beef burger topped with pulled pork, grilled onions, cheddar cheese, house BBQ sauce and the hand-cut potato chips (the latter on the bottom) on a buttered, corn-dusted roll.

Jack brought one of the sliders home, and I admit I should have gone with the smaller portion menu. The burger was absolutely delicious - cooked to order - but it was so big I could barely finish half of it. The fries are good as well, so next time here I won't have any reservations about having them. I must say I could do without the chips on the bottom of the burger - I expected them to get soft, but they stayed fairly crisp despite the burger juices, and I'm not a big fan of crunchy stuff where I don't expect crunchy stuff to be (for instance, don't even think about offering me ice cream with nuts or or candy bits in it). 

So: Will the Stoneyard Grill bring "Cheers" to Niles? Time will tell, of course, but we certainly plan on going back and doing our part to make it so. If you see us there, be sure to call out our name!

If you go:

Stoneyard Grill and Tavern
41 S. Main St.
Niles, Ohio 44446
(330) 544-9273 

Open at 11 a.m. seven days a week.