Lehigh Valley Diner History, Affordable Rate
My old man had returned from Florida last month.
He and my mother-in-law make their annual pilgrimage up north in May from the golf communities, six-lane highways, and senior citizen lollapaloza of South Florida when it’s so hot he can’t tell. “It’s really not that hot here”.
They move in with us for about a month. That’s a story for another column.
From there they venture out to visit family, old friends and familiar ground.
My wife, Lynn, loves to cook and she’s very good at it.
After about three weeks of free gourmet meals, my dad said, “Val and I would like to take you two out to eat.”
The man is known for being, well, let me say – in this age of political correctness – quite frugal.
“We thought we’d go to the crossroads in Hellertown,” he said – meaning he got it, but he likes the royal ‘we’ ring in those areas.
The Hellertown Crossroads Hotel is one of the classic old fashioned bar/restaurants in the Lehigh Valley, known for its unique pizzas, steaks and affordable food in a setting that never changes.
Lynn ordered a pizza to share. I have a cheesesteak.
They chose not to order, stating that a shared slice of pizza should do. The old man and I added a draft beer.
I quickly added a side salad just to drive up the bill and asked Lynn if she wanted one. She joined me.
Total bill: $32.75. Mission accomplished for him. Column material for me. Invaluable.
I haven’t been to Carrefour much in recent years. It was a favorite of my grandfather – my father’s father. He too was a man whose “frugality” was legendary. He once snuck into one of my college competitions to avoid paying the $2 gate.
The location has not changed. A huge stuffed and shelled trophy fish, dead since the early 1970s, still dominates the scene. The wallpaper and floor retain the charm of the circa 1950s.
The food is just as good. The memories of my childhood are even better.
A few weeks after my dad and Val moved back to Florida $40 less (after the Crossroads extravaganza), my youngest son came over from Brooklyn for Father’s Day. I picked him up on the Park & Ride bus on William Penn Highway off Route 33 on a Sunday at noon.
We were both hungry for brunch.
Without thinking too much, I suggested Williams Diner down the road near 25th Street in Easton. Its real name is Williams Family Restaurant and it’s been around since I’ve been here. This is one of the few places we went to eat growing up.
We had a great time: big omelettes and homemade fries plus side dishes of pancakes or French toast with coffee and iced tea. Total bill: $28.50.
As a Father’s Day gift, he picked up the check, saying, “I really miss restaurants in the Lehigh Valley. There is nothing like it in New York. The food is great and it’s so cheap.
The acorns don’t fall far from the Cunningham Tree.
My wife is not a fan of restaurants.
Maybe it’s because she grew up in the restaurant business. His parents, Jack and Theresa Collins, owned and operated the Old Brewery Tavern in Bethlehem for 35 years, from 1969 to 2004. All seven children worked there at one time.
In a time before the posh and expensive restaurants of the Lehigh Valley, OBT (its unofficial name) was a staple of good food and affordable drink – and good times. Her father, an Irish sports journalist, worked around the corner from the bar, drawing crowds with his stories, while her Italian mother prepared the menus and ran the kitchen.
Today, 93-year-old Theresa’s bone-on-bone shoulder joints bear the scars of four decades of lifting supplies, washing pots and serving meals.
Restaurant work is difficult. We are lucky that many do.
Today, the Lehigh Valley has a growing upscale restaurant scene serving food of nearly every variety with big-city quality. This was not the case in the past.
The area’s food and dining heritage was built on working-class restaurants, family restaurants, hotel bars, and hot dog and steak shops. Many of them were run by immigrant families to serve a hard-working region that needed to earn some money.
The result was authentic, unique and valuable places. We’ve lost a few over the years, like the recent closure of the Brass Rail in Allentown and the Mayflower Diner west of Bethlehem, but there are plenty left.
They are the foundation and backbone of a regional food scene that has its own character.
Maybe because of my childhood, I gravitate around them.
My father taught me to find value.
During my career, most of my business lunches have taken place there. When you worked in Allentown it was Seward’s Steak Shop or Ham Fam, Parkland, Top, City View or Sunrise Diners. In Bethlehem, it was Beef Barron, Johnny’s Gyros, Hanover Eatery, Mayflower, Borderline, Dartos, or today, Sebri’s Diner on E. Broad Street. For a slight increase in price and menu, Billy’s Diner, Mitzi’s Table or the Flying Egg on Main Street.
In both cities, Yocco’s is an all-time favourite, a real guilty pleasure.
I never worked at Easton. I’m sure they exist there too.
The daily update for the Lehigh Valley businessman.
I know I am not alone. I see the crowd.
It may not be the price that brings us back.
Maybe it’s the memories – or the notion that in a changing and confusing world, something stays the same.
The comfort of the constant.
Anyway, a big thank you to those who own, operate and occupy these places.
The Lehigh Valley is the winner.
Don Cunningham is the President and CEO of Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.