Perched on the side of a bridge in Gardiner, the A1 Diner may very well live up to its self-proclaimed status as Maine's Most Unique Restaurant. The 1946 diner car packs it's 40 seats multiple times a day, serving up breakfast, lunch and diner. Beyond the typical (but elevated and made from scratch) diner fare, there are numerous daily specials (how about green gazpacho or fish tacos?) and a beer list even the biggest beer dweebs can appreciate. Guy Fieri paid a visit some years back, and it was recently named one of America's best diners by Travel + Leisure.
Josh Robbins, 38, started working as a waiter at the diner 6 or 7 years ago, stopped for a while to play music, and has been back steady for two years. His wife, Eliza, works at A1 as a waitress. (They met at a local bar where he was playing music and she was dancing to it.) Josh, a wise man, gives his wife high praise: "She's a really great waitress. She's so efficient and so smart." Josh often works late lunch and dinner on Wednesdays, then opens on Thursdays, the "Cl-Opener" shift.
Josh has known the A1 Diner (or at least its past incarnations; it's had a few names over the years), since his youth. He grew up 15 miles or so from Gardiner in North Whitefield, "an old cow town." He still recalls his first visit to the diner:
I remember the first time I went there. My parents moved to Whitefield in the late 70s with the whole "back to the land" movement. We lived in a basement where we didn't have a washer and dryer. I don't think we even had electricity at the time. So we'd do laundry in the neighboring town of Randolph. My mom took me there to do laundry one day and said I was so good that we were going to the diner across the river. I had a hotdog there and I couldn't believe how good it was. So I've been going there since the late 70s.
This is how Josh describes a typical day:
I get to work around quarter of seven in the morning. I turn the lights on, fill up the creamers, make the coffee, flip the menus over to the breakfast side, plug the iPod in, straighten up a little bit. I crack some jokes with MIke, the owner. Put out some butter and jam.
Part of the ritual is waiting for the regulars to come in to discuss the newspaper. That's a high point of the morning. We open the door at 7 and a handful of regulars will come in to shoot the breeze and laugh. It's a lot of fun. Seven to eight is my favorite part of the day at the diner. It's easy going. You can converse while still catching up on other stuff, like stocking the beer and wine cooler and rolling silverware.
Usually around 10, Mike will tell me what the specials are for the day. I'll put the letters up on the specials board and find the recipes in the box in case people ask what's in the specials.
When lunch hits, it can be pretty busy, especially this time of year. A lot of times there will be one person working out front and it fills up all at once. It can get a little scary, but it's fast and exciting. You're multi-tasking, bussing tables, cashing out checks, taking food out. Usually in the summertime, someone will come in around 12:30 or so and help me through the end of the rush.
Everything settles down around 2 o'clock until the dinner hours. You cash out and the next person comes on. If you're the next person, you straighten up, make iced tea, check with the cook to see how many specials are left. Dinner will really start cranking around quarter of six until 8 o'clock or 8:30 on the weekends. That's a little different, because you've got beer and wine.
You have your dinner regulars, too. They ask what's new, how your week was. A lot of people are fascinated by the diner. They ask if it's a dining car off a train. You have to know your history. It captures the imagination of lots of people, standing on stilts on a bridge, it's this old relic. It's nice to be part of that.