In Search of Luke’s Diner
The entire run of Gilmore Girls, from 2000 to 2007, stretched the whole arc of my really bad years, when I was really no good to anybody, including myself. The show was a sort of beacon during a dark period when I wasn’t much fun, enjoying my twenties a little too much, and finding new and interesting ways to lose jobs and damage relationships.
As that part of my life slowly started to come to an end, I met my future wife, a native of Hartford County, CT, and started to take more trips deeper into the state with her. I quickly noticed that my assumptions that everyone in the state looked like Gwyneth Paltrow or Rich Uncle Moneybags were wrong (save for Greenwich, where a good chunk of the population looks like those two, or maybe an extended member of the Bush family), but also that every single time we went out to breakfast to a diner, I got some serious Gilmore vibes. I felt like an alien exploring some very WASP-y planet where everybody knew each other, and they all wore Vineyard Vines and L.L. Bean duck boots. Breakfast is a totally different culture in the Constitution State than I was used to. It’s not a sport to get into the hot new place the Times wrote up, or anywhere with a halfway-decent bloody Mary to cure the wicked hangover that just won’t go away. But as I learned, Connecticut diners take that meal very seriously.
There is no actual Luke’s Diner, and there’s also no Stars Hollow. What there is, however, is a legion of Gilmore Girls fans on the internet, and they love to go to the places that inspired the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and write lists detailing landmarks and travel diaries about going to those places. They will almost all tell you about how Sherman-Palladino, the daughter of a Bronx-born Jewish comedian and Southern Baptist mother from Mississippi, spent a little time in Washington, Connecticut (specifically, at the Mayflower Inn), and was taken aback by how friendly all the New Englanders were to each other, how everybody seemed to know one another by name. In a 2005 interview with the A.V. Club, when she was asked, “How much does [Gilmore Girls] resemble small-town America as you understand it?,” Sherman-Palladino answered, “I come from the Valley, so I don't know shit about small-town America. I grew up where my parents would literally shove me in the car rather than have to say hello to a neighbor.”
I also don’t know shit about small-town America. I’ve lived in the two of the country’s biggest metropolises (Chicago and New York City) or their close suburbs for pretty much my entire life. So when faced with spending more time in what I and most other urbanites would call “the country,” but is actually just not the big city, I began exploring, taking back roads, stopping by farms on the side of the road and buying cider and doughnuts, waving to strangers as I passed by, and most of all, getting breakfast. No longer was I chained exclusively to the Saturday morning, post-hangover, shit-talk fests at some new place in Gowanus that we heard was good but it turned out they didn’t know how to poach a damn egg; I could sit by myself, eat an omelet, drink some coffee, read a book, and just exist.
The more time I spent in Connecticut, the more I searched out new diners, crossing from Hartford County into Litchfield County down Route 44, with Talcott Mountain in the distance, past Satan's Kingdom State Recreation Area, always wondering why it was named that. I kept finding new spots that had their own crowds, where people just hung out for hours. The servers didn’t try to rush them out the door, employing those tricks I was so familiar with, like hovering and frequently asking if there was anything else the customers needed every three minutes. They’d stop by with the coffee pot and offer refills, knowing when to just pour and when to ask a customer if they needed a warm up. I’d go back to certain diners that really stuck out to me a few weeks later, and was somewhat shocked when I’d see the same people and the same scenes. It was just like Gilmore Girls, I thought.
My wife has been going to Harvest Cafe and Bakery in Simsbury since she was a kid, and recognizes many of the servers from her childhood, each of them still happily making conversation with the locals, asking how their son’s hockey team is doing, or if so and so made a complete recovery from some work-related injury. The menu is filled with all the classics, though the omelets and scrambles are, in my opinion, the star attraction. The eggs are never too runny, but they’re also not crisp and browned. Perfect omelets are something we take for granted, but you’ve probably had far more bad omelets than good ones in your life. They don’t do anything fancy, except for the fact that everything is baked on the premises and is always fresh and available to buy on your way out. Even during the breakfast rush the vibe is still warm and friendly.
All that is good, but the coffee is what’s most important. And yes, the coffee at Harvest is great. I find people in New England to be far less obsessed with the morning’s most important drink than New Yorkers, San Franciscans, or Seattleites might; Dunkin' Donuts is, after all, the regional pride. On our way back from Simsbury, we stop at Coffee Trade in Avon, a place that does roast its own beans, and has a number of flavored coffees you can pick from as you head towards the back of the old house turned into a store and browse the antiques. The first time my wife took me there, my exact words to her were, “This is the most Stars Hollow place ever.”
Once you get your coffee, take Old Farms Road to Arch Road to West Avon Road and you end up at Luke’s. No, it’s not Luke’s from the show, and I have no clue if Sherman-Palladino ever laid eyes on Luke’s Donut Shop, but I could see Rory Gilmore working on a paper in there among the locals. There’s plenty of space at the counter that sticks out like a peninsula in the middle of the small restaurant to eat your breakfast, but the real takeaway here, as the name implies, are the doughnuts. Hands down, Luke’s makes the best ones in the county.
Then there are places like O'Rourke's in Middletown, a place that every single Wesleyan graduate I know told me to go to. Save for the long lines of locals just getting out of church or hungover undergrads, O’Rourke’s is really the perfect diner. You’ve got all your basics covered, your eggs and French toast, but the omelets, once again, are the star. The Polish with sauerkraut and kielbasa, the Cajun Firecracker with andouille, cheese, and a special “Cajun sauce,” and the gigantic six-egg Bell Buster, are all great, but you go to O’Rourke’s for two things: Graduation Omelets, a dish only available to Wesleyan alumni, and The Dubliner. James Joyce could write a short story about how delicious the damn thing is, with corned beef hash, Irish bacon (which is cut to include the belly and the loin, unlike American bacon which is usually just from the belly), cheddar, soda bread, and a lot of potatoes. O’Rourke’s is one of those massive, we-serve-everything diners, but they’re serious about food. I’d trust nearly everything on the menu. The French press coffee they serve in mismatched mugs really makes me think Lorelai Gilmore would be a regular if she lived nearby.
In West Hartford, A.C. Petersen Farms, which has been serving up the area’s best “farm fresh” ice cream since the 1940s, and thankfully hasn’t changed much of the design or decor of the diner since it opened, is also one of the best breakfast spots in the county. Here you have all the basics, but get the grilled home fries and not the regular ones. Even as something of a breakfast potatoes connoisseur, the ones at A.C. Peterson’s that are seasoned and left to sit overnight definitely rank quite high on my all-time favorite list. They’re a tad creamier than most breakfast potatoes, but also serve up just enough vinegar bite and tenderness to leave you considering seconds.
As far as I know, none of the diners I go to were ever visited by Sherman-Palladino or any of the show’s writers, but in my mind, they all bore some resemblance to Luke’s in some way. Of course, maybe I’m just projecting that. There’s the possibility that I’ve just been harboring these ideas of what New England is like for my entire life, and that Gilmore Girls, like so many other great movies, books, and television shows, have formed my idea of places.
Sometimes I wonder if I enjoy eating breakfast in Connecticut because I’ve set myself up. Maybe I’m just imagining there’s something special about the diners that dot the map of the "Land of Steady Habits.” Yet I keep going back to these places, aware I’m out of my element, the same way I always think I’d feel if Stars Hollow was real and I visited. Yet even as an interloper I feel at home. I could never live in this place, I tell myself, but I sure wouldn’t mind eating breakfast here.
Jason Diamond is the author of the forthcoming memoir Searching for John Hughes (November, William Morrow/HarperCollins)