The Laurel Diner: Plates of Goodness
My family is lucky enough to live in London, England during the school months. We love the accent, the history, the architecture, and the Royal Family. As a cook and food writer, I’ve had fun discovering all the delights of English produce and traditional dishes.
We spend the summers, however, here in Southbury, Connecticut and all year in London we long for one particular foodie delight: The Laurel Diner.
Named for Connecticut’s state flower, the Laurel Diner was established in 1949 and again in 1997, local man Peter Homick, his younger brother Mark, and a third partner purchased the diner. The project quickly became a little more hands-on than the brothers had anticipated. Peter grins. “We had no formal training as chefs. It was on the job training. We hired a few cooks and weren’t satisfied with the way they were doing things so we did it ourselves.”
The Homicks bought out the third partner in 1999 and Peter bought his brother out last year. Along the way in 2008, local girl Stephanie Desimone came back to town and began work at the Laurel. “I came in for my first day, and when I went home, I told my sister, ‘I am going to marry that man someday.’”
Said sister, Bianca, who is a popular waitress at the Laurel now, smiles when she hears this. “I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” but Stephanie knew what she was talking about and the two were married in 2010. They preside over the enormous griddle, the red Formica tabletops, the whiteboard walls and hand-written menus with obvious pride and joy in each other’s company.
Alongside a great entrepreneurial achievement and a love story, though, is the passion the two Homicks bring to the food they offer at the Laurel Diner. It’s what brings our family in over and over throughout the summer months.
But no matter what you order, do not leave the Laurel Diner without trying the best side dish in the history of the world: hashed-brown potatoes.”
Nothing here is pre-made. Peter says proudly, “I do everything from scratch. Everything’s made by hand.” First off, there is not a hint of questionable vegetable oil being bandied about. Butter is the name of the game at the Laurel, and its pure richness flows through all our favorite dishes. First up, eggs any way you like them: my choice, two plump little guys fried and tucked into a hard roll with sausage and cheese, or sunny-side up with a sprinkle of hot sauce (my husband’s favorite), or scrambled in the famous “Ham-Scram,” or folded gently with onions, peppers, mushrooms, you name it, in the daily special omelettes. Peter and his brother (who still helps out at busy times) go through an astonishing 150 dozen eggs a week! They come from the local Doyle’s Double A Farm, a 70-year-old family-owned business in nearby Prospect, Connecticut.
Then there’s the homemade corned beef hash laced with fresh-chopped onions, potatoes and chives–Peter simmers a 35-pound fresh brisket every two days to cover customers’ insatiable appetites for the dish. Scooped up on a triangle of rye toast, it is crisp, hot, buttery perfection.
Did I mention toast? The Laurel goes through about 70 pounds of bread a week, sourced locally from Freihofer’s in Naugatuck, New York. Most popular is the classic white, but rye and whole wheat are close seconds.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Southbury late August through October, order something with tomatoes or peppers, because they come straight from Peter and Stephanie’s organic garden. What a treat.
Everyone has a favorite dish at the Laurel. “Peter makes the best burgers ever,” Stephanie says. “They go down like butter, that’s all I can say.” And she’s right: the next time we were in, I couldn’t resist one, and every bite was heaven: crisp on the outside, smooth and rich on the inside, and piled high with fried onions.
My daughter tended to the sweeter dishes when she was younger, like enormous chocolate-chip pancakes (she could never eat the whole thing), hot cinnamon rolls, waffles with whipped cream and strawberries. Now older and slightly less obsessed with sugar, she’s moved on to the classic Reuben with its succulent brisket or pastrami, sauerkraut and Russian dressing.
But no matter what you order, do not leave the Laurel Diner without trying the best side dish in the history of the world: hashed-brown potatoes. Peter assured me they are just potatoes, but I can’t believe him. There is magic in those mounds of crisp goodness, golden-brown on the outside but still creamy on the inside. There isn’t a main dish they don’t complement.
In fact, it’s the hashed-brown potatoes that bring in one enthusiastic local family. Mom Laurie explains, “My husband came in one day and he knows I’m obsessed with hashed-browns, so we all came in. I always order the same thing: two eggs over medium, bacon and hashed-browns, and they are amazing.”
Eldest son Ethan–who has come to the Diner on the day I meet him for his 14th-birthday treat–orders French toast and home fries, while his younger brother Grayden opts for a waffle and home fries. Youngest sibling Simon copies his mom’s choice, but with just one egg. “We come in all the time,” Laurie explains. “The food is delicious, the service is incredible, and it’s family-friendly.”
It’s not an easy life to run the Laurel Diner. Parents of two little girls, Peter and Stephanie have to juggle the demands of family and the diner. “I sleep about five hours a night, getting in at 5:30 a.m. and leaving the diner at 3,” Peter admits. “But it’s great being your own boss, and our little girl loves it here on our days off, playing at the register and helping flip pancakes.” They close the diner for some well-earned R&R twice a year: two weeks in August/September and two in February/March. And they’re closed on Mondays, a fact our family has forgotten once or twice, to our intense disappointment.
“Peter looks at everybody’s face when they take their first bite,” Stephanie says proudly. “He really cares about making them happy with his food. He should have been Italian!”
Southbury has been good to the Laurel Diner. “It’s a nice little town,” Peter explains. “There are a lot of old-timers, locals, people from Heritage Village. I know a lot of people by name, what they eat.” Stephanie chimes in, “Most people order the same thing to eat and drink and we just need to know their names to put them on their tickets and Peter will know what to cook.”
“Are you planning to stay open a long time?” I ask anxiously, and Peter assures me, “Oh, yeah, we plan to stay forever.” Which is just about long enough to eat up all the corned beef hash I will need.
Tell us about your favorite diner, hamburger joint or whatever local food palace excites you.
Photo credit: Avery Curran
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