Restaurant review: O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown

As soon as I caught sight of a waitress holding a giant egg beater covered in batter in one hand and a bunch of clean spoons in the other, I knew O'Rourke's was my kind of place. She stopped at each table, offering customers a taste of the batter, which would be used to make a pistachio sweet bread. It was delicious, of course, but more than that, it brought back that childhood joy of being handed a batter-smeared beater to be licked clean like an ice cream cone.

That's part of the charm of this landmark Middletown establishment, which offers a pretty extensive gourmet diner menu but still manages to make you feel like you're in a family kitchen.

The place dates back to 1941, but current owner Brian O'Rourke bought the diner with his cousin in 1977 and became the sole owner in 1985, aiming to up the culinary ante.

In 2006, the diner burned down in a kitchen fire, and the community famously rallied to help rebuild it.

I can't compare it to the original, but the diner that stands on Main Street today still has an old diner feel - a metal box with a neon sign outside, and inside, tile floors, booths and stools at the counter. Brian O'Rourke himself can be seen bustling around in an unassuming way and interacting with customers both new and old.

The menu is long in classic diner style but is also the kind that could make you nervous. How could anyone make a list of meals that take up eight pages well? We only had a small sample, but according to online reviews, Brian seems to have done it. Many of the dishes have an Irish slant, but there's plenty of creativity, especially in the day's specials, such as egg dishes with pulled pork and falafel.

On our first trip, we were reeled in by the banana bread French toast ($12), one of the dishes featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on a visit to O'Rourke's. The bread is homemade and thick enough to soak up the egg. It's topped with a generous helping of cooked "bananas O'Rourke," a take on bananas foster but with Irish whiskey. The dish, also topped with a dollop of cream, is rich and sweet, bringing classic French toast to another level.

On the saltier side, how could you not order the "Omelet of My Dreams" ($10)? The thin layer of egg was cooked nicely so it wasn't dried out, and filled with a slightly sweet but flavorful caramelized onion pesto and gooey provolone cheese. It was topped with a smooth but not too creamy hollandaise sauce and served over thick, grilled brown bread.

On a second trip, we sampled one of the recommended breakfasts, the "Irish embassy" ($13), which featured some delicately poached eggs with the hollandaise, nicely runny over grilled brown bread and perfectly grilled bacon. We also experienced the delight of Brian's corned beef hash, which is happily unlike any I've had before. It has an almost creamy texture, with bits of what seems to be some kind of rice and a variety of spices, in addition to the meat.

The home fries varied on our trips - good when hot, with a good mix of crunchy bits, but not so great when lukewarm.

The "Bob Wolfe's omelet" ($10.50) was also a hit, filled with what must have been perfectly ripe avocado to make a guacamole with tomato, melted provolone and bacon.

Finally, there was the famed steamed cheeseburger ($3.50), which we actually got as a side dish just to try it (I don't recommend this - it's bigger than it seems and you'll probably eat more than you plan to). The steaming keeps the meat amazingly moist, and the gloppy, melted aged cheddar cheese is tasty, but I think the burger itself lacks some flavor. But people swear by steamed burgers, so if that's the way you like it, give Brian's a try.

I can't guarantee you'll be offered a taste of batter on every trip you take to O'Rourke's, but the diner offers enough that, in case you don't get lucky, you'll leave full and happy either way.

O'Rourke's Diner facts

728 Main St., Middletown
(860) 346-6101
www.orourkesdiner.com
Hours: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
Cuisine: Gourmet diner food for breakfast and lunch
Service: Attentive and quick on a weekday, but be careful on busier weekends
Prices: Ranges from a $2 grilled cheese to the $16 always changing "Brian's breakfast"
Handicap access: Yes
Credit cards : All major
Reservations: N/A

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