by Chip Ainsworth
Early one morning in Rutland, Vermont, I walked into the chamber of commerce and asked for the best breakfast place in town. We’d driven 75 miles on caffeine and Graham crackers, and now the coffee was kicking back like an oil rig ready to explode.
They seemed confused by this stranger who would ask such a question. Gimme a name was all I wanted, someplace good. But all they could do was look at each other and hem and haw. Finally a staffer pointed to an eatery across the street on Merchants Row, near the Asa Bloomer state office building where Susan was taking a three-hour exam. That place? I’d already checked it out and it was empty, not a good sign at mealtime and not worth the risk.
Finally one of the staffers mentioned the Midway Diner. I asked for directions. Rutland is the same size as my local turf of Greenfield, Mass., with a population of slightly more than 16,000 residents, and also like Greenfield two major highways intersect its city limits. Route 7 goes border-to-border from Canada to Massachusetts and Route 4 begins slightly south of Rutland proper and proceeds west into New York where it bends south toward Troy.
But I wasn’t driving. It was a nice day for a walk. So I took a left out the door and trudged up a hill on West Street toward the gazebo on the town common. A few minutes later I followed a mailman into the Credit Union of Vermont.
“Where’s the Midway Diner?” I asked.
He was giving me a look as if to say, “What am I, a cab driver?” when a teller intervened and said, “It’s a mile down.”
“It’s okay,” she shrugged. “Johnny Boy’s is the best … the breakfast burrito.”
Back out the door, I crisscrossed a Walgreens parking lot and walked past a drive-through bottle redemption plaza over to a sidewalk that adjoined Route 4 westbound. During my trips to Florida I think of all I miss while driving at 75 mph — “You can drive coast-to-coast a not see a thing,” said Charles Kuralt, whose “On the Road” essays were a mainstay of CBS TV for so many years.
Nobody in a car would notice the plaque outside downtown Rutland that declared this stretch of Route 4 to be the Blue Star Memorial Highway, dedicated to “The Armed Forces that have defended the United States.”
And nobody with rolled-up windows would be consumed by the deafening noise of engines revving and mufflers rumbling, the sound of gears grinding as pickups, motorcycles and 18-wheel rigs stopped and started at traffic lights. Yet not once did I hear the siren call of an emergency vehicle. That’s different from Greenfield, where the earsplitting noise is so frequent that a Main Street business owner was motivated enough to name his restaurant the Siren Cafe.
It was getting hot, my jacket was off and Johnny Boy’s wasn’t in sight so I asked a McDonald’s employee who was outside emptying the trash for directions. Being loyal to his Egg McMuffins he simply rolled his shoulders, gave me the what-for and said, “Go ask over at Stewart’s (Sandwich Shop).”
Like Forrest Gump I soldiered on around the bend and saw the sign for Johnny Boy’s down past Rutland High School. I jogged across the highway and walked inside the square building where about two-dozen diners were seated at rustic pine tables drinking coffee and eating their ham-and-eggs.
I opted for a counter seat with a clear view of the grill. It was 10 a.m. but the cook, a New Jersey transplant named John “Johnny Boy” Petrone, was still busy cracking eggs and shuffling home fries with his spatula while his wife, Luanne, took my order.
After browsing the front page of the Rutland Herald, I glanced at the wood-paneled wall where framed black-and-white photos hung of baseball stars, crime figures and old-time Hollywood actors. The honorees included Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. To my right were Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, otherwise remembered as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton of CBS TV’s “Honeymooners” sketches, and below them were photos of John “Dapper Dan” Gotti and of the undertaker kissing Don Corleone’s hand in the opening scene of “The Godfather.”
Next to the cash register was a notice printed in large black letters: “Prices Subject to Change According to Customer’s Attitude.”
I left with a good attitude, having polished off a plateful of pancakes, bacon, eggs, toast, coffee and orange juice for $16.10 plus tip, and walked back toward the center of Rutland past White Birch Realty, Green Mountain Yarn Fibers, the Vermont Art Studio and the Pine Tree Lodge.
At the credit union I stopped and thanked the teller for her recommendation. “Awesome,” she smiled. “Have a great day.”
And at the chamber of commerce I dropped by to say that Johnny Boy’s is quite possibly the best breakfast joint in town. “I have eaten there,” a staffer nodded. “They’re very good but we don’t refer them. They’re not a member.”
“Next time,” I told her, “just step outside and whisper in my ear.”
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning New England sports columnist.