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The A1 Diner in Gardiner, Maine - Where Retro Meets Bistro!

Should you find yourself wandering around in mid-Maine, take a detour to the city of Gardiner which was founded as Gardinerstown Plantation in 1754 by Dr. Silvester Gardiner, a prominent Boston physician and Tory whose substantial land holdings were confiscated during the American Revolution.  The property was eventually restored to his grandson, Robert Hallowell Gardiner, and the town was incorporated on February 17, 1806 then later as a city on November 26, 1849.  A "bedroom community" of less than 6,000 residents comprised mostly of people working in Maine's capital city of Augusta or at the Bath Iron Works, in 1980 the entire downtown historic district of Gardiner was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Kennebec County, Maine due to its great deal of historic architecture.  Some of that historic architecture belongs to the 1820 Christ Episcopal Church (the oldest continuously operating Episcopal Church in Maine), the 1881 Gardiner Public Library, and the 1911 Gardiner Railroad Station.

Not listed on the National Register of Historic Places but definitely someplace you'll want to visit and make some history of your own in Gardiner is the A1 Diner on Bridge Street.  Arriving by truck from the factory in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1946 and opening as Heald's Diner under the ownership of Eddie Heald, Worcester Lunch Car #790  became the go-to place for the factory workers of Gardiner who stopped in for large portions of tasty stick-to-your-ribs dishes that were served quickly and efficiently 24 hours a day. Over the years the diner changed owners and names a time or two - Eddie Heald sold it to Maurice Wakefield who named it after himself and ran it from 1952 to 1979 before selling it to Al "Gibey" Gibberson who named the diner after himself and ran it until he eventually sold it to its current owners in 1988 who didn't name it after themselves but called it the A1 Diner instead.

Almost 70 years since it arrived in town and opened its doors, Worcester Lunch Car #790 is still at the same location on Bridge Street, still offering up booth and counter seating, and still serving good food fast but the future didn't always look bright for the little diner whose original name of "Heald's" still adorns it. The mills in Gardiner had started to close down in the 1950s taking away customers, the high school kids who used to hang out at the diner in the 1970s had migrated over to the new McDonald's, and following the flooding of the Kennebec River on April 1, 1987 (the third of Gardiner's devastating floods), owner "Gibey" Gibberson had had enough and decided to sell as there wasn't enough insurance money to cover the damages that the diner had sustained.  It looked like it was going to be the end of the line for the historic eatery but then, enter in the fourth owners who decided to forego opening a breakfast restaurant in Boston and buy the diner instead - Michael Giberson, son of Gibey, and his partner Neil Anderson.

A-1 Diner owners Michael Giberson, left, and Neil Anderson
Photo Credit: Kennebec Journal
Knowing that the economy was looking pretty bleak in Gardiner and that most new restaurants tend to fold up after a few years, Michael and Neil set out to shake things up a bit in an effort to keep the doors of the eatery open and make their "new" old diner a success. To that end, the new owners rolled up their shirt sleeves and started making changes - first with the coffee which was in need of upgrading, then in the kitchen tweaking the basic menus and how things were done, and finally by adding some of their own recipes to the menu in an attempt to bring in a younger and more varied group of clientele.

Where once the in-hand menu and the "Bill of Fare" menu boards between the diner's clock just offered your standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner diner fare, they now boast items like Sausage Tortellini with Pesto Cream, Curried Beef Meatloaf with Mango Chutney, Spice-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with Pomegranate Sauce, and Three Bean Vegetable Chili.  Using the finest and freshest locally-sourced foods, the menu runs the gamut from American to Vietnamese with a little bit of everything in between but not to worry, you can still order your basic diner burger but it's going to be made of grass-fed, locally raised beef - none of that frozen stuff filled with preservatives!

Though they made lots of changes that would affect the taste-buds, the new owners didn't change the aesthetics of the diner inside or out and retained all of the things that make dining in a retro lunch car so appealing. Outside, the steel and porcelain Worcester Semi-Streamliner style diner which is located next to the Cobbossee Stream is balanced just about twenty feet in the air on large steel girders that elevate it to road level - a spot its been in since it came off the truck in 1946.  To the right side of the diner as you face it, is a walkway that leads to the kitchen and restrooms (yep, you need to go outside and then back in to use 'em!) If you look down, you can see that you're a pretty good distance up from the ground below but don't let that dissuade you from going inside, the diner is very sturdily anchored and is in no danger of falling from its perch!

Cheery flower boxes bursting with color from spring to fall decorate the bridge railing in front of the diner and if you peek in through the window of the stainless steel door on the side, you can see the neon sign that the current owners had purchased at a Cape Cod antique shop that gave the A1 Diner it's current name.

Walking through the front door is akin to stepping back in time as inside you'll find the original 1946 pink Tennessee marble counter tops fronted by 16 chrome pedestal stools, blue and black tiled wainscot and counter apron, a back-bar with stainless steel sunburst-style panels, a curved ceiling made from wood and Formica panels, and six cozy mahogany booths whose tables are covered in oilcloth bursting with bright colors.

Behind the cash register (no, not the original but a more modern version!) there's a window where orders go in and the food comes out, passed through by the very talented cooks in the kitchen to the friendly waitstaff - some who have been working at the diner for years.

While in Maine this past summer for the August edition of the Blistered Fingers Bluegrass Festival in nearby Litchfield, my cousin Amy and I stopped in at the A1 for lunch on a sunny Saturday afternoon as she knows I can't possibly wander by a diner without at least a peek inside plus it was past lunchtime and we were both getting a bit hungry having skipped breakfast. Luckily we were able to score seats in one of the booths where nearby - after we had been served our drink order and I was enjoying a tasty cup of the diner's coffee - we found a copy of the March 2011 Down East Magazine with an article on Maine comfort food that featured a cover photo from the A1 Diner displaying two grilled franks resting on a healthy serving of Maine's own Portland-based B&M Beans and a side of slaw.

 The article - "Eat This and Feel Good" - stated:
“…a symbol of Maine's slow-cooked culinary heritage, Gardiner’s A1 Diner serves the B&M beans accompanied by two grilled franks and a side of coleslaw. “Baked beans are a very New England thing,” says sous chef Aaron Harris. “If we didn’t have franks and beans, we couldn’t call ourselves a diner.” 
Well heck, there's not much I like better than a good serving of grilled franks and beans but not wanting to be completely swayed by a delicious cover photo, I decided to peruse the menu a bit to see what might pop out and cry "Pick me! Eat me!"

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Some of the items pictured below which were taken from the A1's Facebook page (which posts photos of delicious looking foods on a daily basis and makes me wish I lived a lot closer than almost four hours away!), may or may not have been on the menu the day that Amy and I were there but regardless, you can get an idea of just how varied their selection is and how daunting it would be to pick out just one thing to eat! 

Porchetta, Pork Shoulder Stuffed with Herbs and Crumbs
Balsamic Beet Salad with Arugula, Toasted Almonds, Goat Cheese and Balsamic Vinaigrette
Crimini Mushroom & Wild Rice Gratin
Winter Squash and Millet Soup with Fresh Cilantro
Mulligatawny or Curried Chicken and Apple Soup
Salmon and Tofu Cakes with Pickled Vegetables and Asian Rice
Whiskey Peach Upside Down Cake
Pineapple Upside Down Cake
Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie
Warm Brownie in a Cup
After mulling it over for a bit, I finally decided to go with a bit more traditional diner fare and chose a Bacon Cheeseburger ($7.99) with a side of hand-cut fries while Amy ordered a basic Cheeseburger ($7.59) with fries. I also ordered a side of brown gravy to dip our fries in and holy smokes Iwas I glad I made that choice as that was THE best brown gravy I think I have ever had.  I don't know which nationality first started dipping fries in gravy - England, Scotland, Ireland, whoever - but I'd like to thank them as it's a terrific alternative to ketchup, especially when the gravy is as good as it is in Gardiner at the A1!

It didn't take long for my done-to-perfection burger served on a fresh Brioche roll with lots of crispy bacon and melted cheddar cheese to arrive and be set in front of me where I had to admire it a bit before digging in! The burger was just the right amount of juicy and very flavorful while the fries were lightly salted and not a bit greasy - perfect for dipping!  Additionally our waitress made sure that my coffee cup was never empty!

As we still had a bit of room left after finishing our burgers and fries, Amy and I decided to try out one of the diner's desserts and after receiving a very high recommendation from our server, we chose a slice of Whoop Doody Cake to share.  Named after one of Michael Gibberson's mothers sayings, the dark chocolate cake is frosted with a white frosting that makes both cake and frosting taste similar to a Whoopie Pie but what really makes this cake outstanding is the light layer of peanut butter filling and the salted peanuts that adorn the edges.  It was the perfect blend of sweet and salty - no wonder our server raved about it!  We did, too and if I ever find myself back up that way, I'll be sure to stop in just to see if there's a slice available!

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Should you find yourself in Gardiner for whatever reason or the season, do your taste buds a huge favor and make a stop at one of America's Best Diners as featured in Travel & Leisure magazine as well as on Local Legends, a season 1 episode of Guy Fiere'sDiners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network; and the subject of the 2006 book by author Sarah Rolph A1 Diner: Real Food, Recipes & Recollections which not only features the history of Worcester Lunch Car #790 and its owners but also gives you recipes that you can try out at home. Unfortunately there doesn't appear to be a recipe for Whoop Doody Cake in there though - darn the luck!

While there you can also pick up a piece of memorabilia in the form of an A-1 t-shirt, coffee mug, or even the coffee to go in the mug in the form of a one-pound bag of their A-1 Dynamite coffee beans. Made specially for the diner by Wicked Joe Coffee in Brunswick, Maine, the wicked good full-bodied brew is a blend of regular medium dark roast with half French roast and is sure to help kick-start your day whether you drink a mug while seated in a classic diner or in your own home!

The A-1 Diner, located at 3 Bridge Street in the historic city of Gardiner, Maine, is open Monday - Thursday, 7 A.M. - 8 P.M., Friday & Saturday, 7 A.M. - 8:30 P.M, and on Sunday from 8 A.M. - 1:30 P.M. for Brunch. In addition to cash, they also take Visa, Mastercard, and Discover cards which is a bit different for a retro diner but definitely appreciated by those of us who don't always carry around folding money! I'm going to keep all of that in mind for the next time I wander up to Maine and I hope you will, too!

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