Fairlee, Vt. — Roberts' Fairlee Diner, in the white clapboard town of Fairlee (winter population about 700), is a favored spot among those who know it. It may not seem remarkable at first visit, because it is so very much what a diner ought to be that you feel as if you have been here before. This is the place that, as you're driving up the highway, you always dream of finding, but never do.
Strangers invariably covet a booth: booths are of welcoming golden wood and have their own jukeboxes which feature songs by U2, Whitney Houston, the Beastie Boys, and Waylon Jennings. But the counter is the place to sit if you like meeting people and snappy repartee.
In the city, people always sit as far from other people as they can. But here, you sit down next to your friends; the whole counter will be empty, but for six people sitting together at one end, teasing each other and laughing.
A railroad track runs right behind the diner. One summer day a train car speeds by; you can see a flash of turquoise through the back window. The entire building shakes; plates rattle like castanets.
``The Boston and Maine,'' remarks Doc Ludwig.
Everybody continues eating. There are loggers, and people on their way to work, and mothers taking their kids to school.
People are dressed the way New Englanders like, in navy and blue and red and tan, nothing flashy or ostentatiously matching: layers of cotton and flannel plaid shirts, and jeans, with a baseball cap perhaps.
Doc begins explaining to a neighbor that otters have consumed the trout in his trout pond, which he maintains for little kids to go fishing in. He does not agree with the visiting reporter's contention that otters are cute.
``Otters are cute!'' he repeats with righteous disgust.
Mary Beauchene and Eunice Edmands are back of the counter, Mary on the left, Eunice on the right. Mary, hair in small brown braid, has been here 11 months. Eunice has short wavy brown hair and glasses and long dimples and has worked at the diner since 1960. People say she knows everything that goes on in Fairlee.
``I don't tell all I see and hear,'' she says firmly.
When it's busy, the two women work in continuous unbroken movements; a gesture that starts by setting down a plate flows into a sweep at the home fries cooking on the grill and then into a reach for the coffee pot and a swirl around the counter: ``You don't have to drink so fast, Peter; I can come back,'' says Eunice.
People here like bacon with their eggs every day and French fries that have an actual potato somewhere in their recent past.
The diner serves a bottomless cup of coffee for 50 cents; you can have jimmies (chocolate sprinkles) on your ice cream; and you can have real maple syrup on your pancakes, though it costs a lot - $2.25 these days (this was a bad year for syrup, according to Doc). And in addition to commonly available types of sandwiches you can get peanut butter and marshmallow or peanut butter and bacon.
Katrina Wallstrom is sitting by herself. She says in the summer you see a lot of people from out of town, but on this day she knows half the people present.
``That's why people move out of the city,'' she says. ``If you don't know half of the people in town, you haven't been keeping your eyes open.''
Leith Henderson and Martin Larson are sitting in a corner booth. Leith is a former trucker (who once moved the diner to its present location in the early 1940s). Now retired, he spends the colder months in Florida.
``All I know about winter is what I read in the paper,'' he says.
They both say they spend a lot of time at the Fairlee diner. ``We live here. I do, anyway,'' says Leith.
``Eunice is the great drawing card,'' says Martin, an undertaker. ``You have to sit on the end stool - that's the only time she stops. You sit here, you'll see a little bit of everybody coming through in a day's time.''
Leith comments that people come here to the diner for breakfast from the Lake Morey Inn.
``They won't pay the prices over there,'' he says.
In addition to cheap prices, the Fairlee diner offers a peaceful atmosphere.
``Nobody rushes here - wouldn't do you any good anyway,'' says Martin.
``Eunice always wins,'' says Leith.
``If you're in a rush and you tell her, she'll probably tell you you should eat somewhere else,'' says Martin.
Thomas Haslett is sitting at the counter, chatting with Mary and his friend Dave Adams.
Thomas has lived in Fairlee for 10 years but is originally from Rhode Island. He says it isn't hard to be a transplant, ``if you've got an open mind and you realize that this is their town. In Rome, do as the Romans do; it's the same thing here.''
Thomas says he likes having breakfast at the Fairlee diner.
``It's a starting point for the day,'' he says. (``Even if it's about noon,'' adds Mary.)
Thomas begins to threaten Eunice with disclosure of ``the story about beagles and bagels.''
``You have to have a sense of humor if you work here,'' says Eunice.
It seems that the Fairlee Diner was at one point offering bagels as a special and Eunice put up a sign that read ``Try our new beagles.'' Thomas says, ``I asked her if those were brown and white or just plain white beagles.''
Then Thomas tells of the time it was rumored (incorrectly as it happens) that Tom Selleck was buying a house in Fairlee.
``Jaws dropped around here,'' he says. ``And I said, `What has Tom Selleck got that I ain't got?'''
``And I said, `I haven't all day to talk to you!''' says Eunice triumphantly.
Around noon, things seem quieter. People at the counter are arranged more like city folks, with gaps in between. Mary takes a short break, leaning on her elbow, looking thoughtful. Eunice talks to a slender older man about a time-sharing condominium called the Eagle's Nest. He said they still aren't used to condos around here.
``That's the way the world's going, I guess,'' he says.
A woman comes in for a plate of homefries and gravy.
``How're you doing?'' says Eunice.
``Oh, all right,'' says the woman.
``Not much choice, have we?'' says Eunice.
It's a gorgeous day, and the room is full of fluorescent light and sunshine.
``Why don't you wait about two minutes and let me brew you some fresh,'' says Eunice to a man in a blue shirt who wants coffee.
``I got time,'' he says.
Diners - not run on nostalgia alone
You get the impression that things haven't changed much at the Fairlee Diner since Maurice Roberts's grandfather built it in 1939. But you'd be wrong, says Mr. Roberts, the present owner, who has been involved in the diner all his life: ``I pretty much grew up on it,'' he says.
``We're trying to maintain a lot of things: local character, homemade food. We do all our own cooking, make our own pastries and bread, make our own beans, baked in bean pots - the original recipe. But we have become a lot more sophisticated in our operation. We have a computer - it's already outdated.''
Roberts also has a word processor in his home, for typing out the menu each day. Before, he did it on a typewriter.
``One of the reasons a lot of small diners have died is that they're mom and pop operations, and mom and pop wear out,'' he says. ``There are really only a handful left in Vermont. You've either got to be in a high volume area - and if you're in a high volume area you end up competing with one of the chains - or you're in a low volume area. If you're in a low volume area, mom and pop are there all the time and they do all the work.''
Interstates also contributed to the demise of most diners - only a big operation can afford to buy land near a highway. His diner succeeds because he owns two restaurants that supplement each other. Even though the Fairlee Diner is listed in ``Roadfood,'' by Jane and Michael Stern, as one of the 10 best roadside restaurants in the United States, ``I couldn't make a living just cooking here like my father did,'' he says.
The way he runs the diner doesn't have much to do with nostalgia.
``It's more the insistence that you don't jump on something because it's easier,'' he says. ``The background has changed a lot. We've tried not to change the front at all.''