While on the Mass Turnpike, en route to Cooperstown, N.Y., we became hungry. OK, wicked hungry, actually, as they say in Boston and much of New England.
Knowing the recently raised Route 90 tolls in Massachusetts and the no longer cheap selection of highway stop restaurants would not do our budget any favors, we opted to take Exit 2 (the Lee/Pittsfield exit) in hopes of eating at, and supporting a local business. Plus, historically we reached a limit of all the knuckleheads in the Lee Service Plaza parking lot being totally oblivious to moving cars and pedestrians. Being tethered to one’s cell phone and not paying attention to the real world has that effect, I suppose.
Just a few minutes off the exit heading towards Lee, the 1000-pound weight on our shoulders, courtesy of highway life, dissipated as we headed into sunny, charming downtown Lee. With its tremendous variety of mom and pop shops, people strolling the main drag, and a certain friendliness transmitting from the town into our car, Lee seemed like the type of idyllic small town you would see in a Hallmark movie. Better yet, Lee seemed like a Norman Rockwell town, which makes sense as the famed author, painter and illustrator once lived in nearby Stockbridge and often drew upon the area for inspiration in his works. There is even a Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, which is well worth seeing, but we’ll save that story for another day.
On the northern outskirts of downtown Lee, we came across Joe’s Diner. Unassuming in appearance with a plain “Joe’s Diner” sign and a old-time Pepsi sign on the outside, we then stepped inside to another time and place where local customers and waitresses conversed over big portions of classic comfort foods.
Looking around the room suggested a sense of history and community pride. Colored drawings from elementary school students saturated one side of the wall. Photos of celebrity visitors — the DiMaggio brothers and Secretary of State John Kerry, to name a few — lined another wall. Most prominently, that famous Saturday Evening Post drawing known as “The Runaway” — a friendly policeman talking with a small would-be runaway boy at a diner — stood out from everything else on the wall given its legendary pop culture status. You see, Joe’s Diner was once part of the inspiration for Norman Rockwell to come up with that masterpiece.
Ambiance and history aside, Joe’s Diner serves very good diner food at lower-than-usual diner prices. Whether breakfast, lunch, dinner or a slice of homemade pie, chances are your selection will taste much better than what you’d find at the highway service centers. While we loved our waffles, omelets and tuna melt, food clearly isn’t the only reason to come here.
The chance to be introduced to a very nice town, connect with the community in the diner and have seasoned waitresses –as opposed to disinterested employees serving you in between their texting and social media empires — is a modern day revelation. Joe’s Diner taps into that nostalgia by slowing down the pace from our higher speed highway routes, and getting down to the basics.
Now that’s what I call a real diner!
Joe’s Diner is located at 85 Center St., Lee, Mass. Tel. 413-243-9756