The Lunch Box Diner
When asked what fuels my insatiable need to seek out the unknown, to surrender to my wanderlust, setting my sails to the winds on pilgrimages to temples of kitschy Americana and gastronomic oddities, I can only credit an obsessive curiosity. Pinpointing the moment when life for me turned into an epic journey is not an easy task, but it almost certainly was borne from a single incident, when three scrappy kids knee-high to a grasshopper with Ricky Ricardo haircuts and white button-down shirts, and an infant in tow, made their way by Greyhound bus from gray, sooty Pittsburgh to Malden, Massachusetts in 1966.
Knowing that we were embarking on a journey to a mystic, faraway land that might as well have been Mare Tranquillitatis forced me to commit to memory every seemingly unimportant detail of the Edgewood neighborhood where we lived and our trek to New England. I recall carrying only a metal Batman lunchbox containing a printed summer schedule of events at Koenig Field as luggage; a Maxwell House coffee billboard that had a brown spiral feature that imitated pouring coffee when it rotated; nearly losing my brother in a Harrisburg rest room; and, spending our first night on the living room floor with only a yellow and green enamel top farm table for furniture and a can of French’s Potato Sticks for dinner.
Even then breakfast was the most important meal of the day, although there was a conspicuous absence of the consumer watchdogs that ensure we don’t overdose on sugar, lactose, gluten and all the other gastronomic horrors that aim to do us harm. With no car, we generally walked or took the bus wherever we went, and on our first day living in the land of pilgrims’ pride, we trekked 2 miles down Eastern Avenue until we came across a tiny red 1932 Worcester Lunch Car (most likely named Viv’s back then). To this day I don’t know why we didn’t stop elsewhere; the Woolworth’s lunch counter and Schopell’s Cafeteria in Malden Square were much closer, and nobody else remembers what took us over to that side of town. What I do remember was my first breakfast in this tiny diner on Route 60; a collection of small boxes of cereal from Kellogg’s Variety Pack were arranged on a wire rack on the counter, the cartoon mascot faces of Snap, Crackle and Pop, the Kellogg’s rooster and Tony the Tiger peering down at my young face with that “pick me” look about them. The selection of my choosing was never in doubt – on this morning, I would partake of the crispy corn flakes with “that secret frosting that makes them great”.
This may very well have been the last time I ate Sugar Frosted Flakes; I haven’t seen the Variety Pack in years, although I believe they’re still available (I’m just not aware of in what format). At the time, the small box had a perforation running the length and across the top and bottom of its face; fingers or a butter knife was all that was required to create little cardboard doors revealing a wax paper pouch. Once slit across and pulled back, the liner became a makeshift bowl – milk and a liberal application of sugar made for slightly less than a balanced breakfast for a future world traveler on an adventure in his hometown.
Growing up in Malden, I never revisited the diner. Eventually I left a city with its main street cleaved by a brick behemoth City Hall; shoppers headed out to the ‘burbs and their sprawling malls, and although restaurants and shops were razed or replaced, that little diner continued to stand near the corner of Eastern Avenue and Maplewood Streets, changing hands over the years to be reborn with various hues of paint and names such as Judy’s, Lulu’s and Rose’s Lil’ Red Diner. The diner had lived its previous life in Wareham and was moved to Malden prior to my visit in the 1960s; since 2008, it has been known as The Lunch Box Diner (owned and operated by Nick Master).
Master is the cook on duty, and he acknowledges everyone who steps through the old wooden door; most of the patrons he knows by name. The Lunch Box is the epitome of the old-school diner – everything is red white and black with a counter that wraps around the tiny car; three or four metal tables and chairs take their place on the art deco two-tone tile floor. The specials are chalked over the grill at the end of the room where Masters holds court, cracking eggs and jokes. On most days he holds down the fort by himself, but confides that he doesn’t know when he’ll join the slow exodus of Maldonians to warmer climes. Having returned recently to the site of my earliest breakfast memory, I was reluctant to ride the tiger (Tony) again and decided instead to eat breakfast as the Bostonians do.
On my visit, the specials listed the New England favorite of steak tips, served for breakfast with eggs, home fries and toast. For the uninitiated, steak tips are typically big, juicy, marinated nuggets of sirloin or flap meat ends; restaurants such as the now defunct Hilltop Steak House (with its gargantuan neon cactus, itself a throw-back to the 1960s) and the New Bridge Cafe in Chelsea have put steak tips on the culinary map. The draw was irresistible, so I ordered it rare with two over-easies and white toast – the meat was tender and threaded with bits of beef fat; Master confided that instead of sirloin, his specialty was substituting prime rib. The food was everything you would expect from a diner – folksy, hearty and filling, with a cup of java in a department store mug.
They say you can never go back, but you can and should – the things that contribute to past and future memories are fleeting, and I am a staunch advocate of seeking out those things that make up our history before it’s too late – preferably with a side of home fries.
The Lunch Box Diner
906 Eastern Avenue
Malden, MA 02148
GPS Coordinates: 42°25’48.29″N 71° 2’39.60″W