New chapter for Norm's: Venerable Groton diner under new ownership
—The concept of a "diner" as a restaurant varies significantly depending on your own personal experiences. For example, is a diner a free-standing construct or can it be inset amongst other shops or storefronts? Compare and contrast over breakfast!
To me, perhaps the most iconic surviving diner in our part of the world has always been Norm's Diner in Groton, largely because of its Pullman Car structure and, let's face it, a tradition that, for years, probably put a bit too much emphasis on the "greasy" part of "greasy spoon." Earlier this year, though, a new ownership group bought Norm's, and pretty much the only thing they kept was the name.
The first and most important thing they did was to close the joint for several days and give it the sort of cleaning you'd expect after a plague. They've also applied fresh blue accent paint, installed an actual television tuned to a news station for those counter-seated customers intent on a side of current events to go with their scrambled-and-home-fries, potted plants, and windows that've been washed so you can actually see the rotting under-skeleton of the nearby Gold Star Bridge. Oh, and they've even replaced half the booths with actual wooden tables/chairs for a slightly more formal approach to the experience.
There's that casual, we're-all-here-together atmosphere necessary in any proper diner, where sharing opinions about a variety of topics seems as much a part of the experience as rib-stickin'/hangover-curing comfort food. Indeed, the culinary wizardry at a diner isn't about Michelin 3-star chef-ness but rather, as Big Steve King described the responsibilities of a short-order cook in "The Dead Zone": "...Can you keep your **** together at two in the morning when 12 CB cowboys pull in all at once and order scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, French toast and flapjacks?" The obvious implication here would be that, in addition to speedy dexterity, a diner should reliably provide food should also taste good. All of these things work well at the new Norm's. The staff's quick, pleasantly chatty and genuinely seems to care whether you're enjoying your stay. At present, other than all-night hours Saturday going into Sunday, when they close at 4 p.m., Norm's is only open till 2 p.m. — and therefore the menu choices emphasize breakfast and sandwiches.
One thing to note immediately: the breakfast sandwich/coffee deal is pretty great for $5. I've tried (with some regularity) both crispy bacon and sausage patty versions, with cheese and fried egg on a large hard roll. They're big enough to keep you fueled till well past lunch. My wife Eileen, aka The Germophobe Who Avoids Diners On General Anticeptic Principle (TGWADOGAP), actually enjoyed the new Norm's and was pleased by an omelet boasting three fluffy, buttery eggs in a perfect fold over to envelope florets of broccoli and mellow cheese ($8.75). Nestled alongside: a king's helping of cubed, delicately seasoned home fries and two slices of toast.
There are, of course, plenty of other omelet choices and three-eggs-plus platters along with pancakes, steak and eggs, and specialties like gravy and biscuits, Reuben or Philly steak breakfast grinders, and a variety of sides ranging from hash and rarities such as scrapple — the latter is a pressed, griddled amalgam of pork trimmings and cornmeal. My paternal grandmother was a fine scrapple engineer and would have enjoyed Norm's chewy, savory version ($3.25).
Be careful with lunch portions. You can easily be overwhelmed. Recently, I tried a cup of spicy tortilla chicken soup ($2.94 cup,$3.95 bowl) along with a special of country style creamed tuna on toast ($8.95). The cup of soup, rimmed with escarpments of tortilla chips and served with a wedge of fresh lime, featured a tangy broth, chopped chicken, black beans, tomato, corn and onion. Very nice.
As for the creamed tuna, chunks of flaked white canned tuna were immersed in a rich gravy dotted with peas and paved upon three sliced of rye bread. I thought the ratio of peas was too high and overwhelmed the balance of the dish, though that's very subjective. Pea aficionados might well love the balance. It was a vast helping — but even so was accompanied by an adjunct platter with two perfect scrambled eggs and home fries. More food than anyone would need, but I gave it hell.
Other non-breakfast specials, which hint at the possibility of Norm's expanding to regular dinner hours, have included fried chicken, ham or chopped hamburger steaks, meatloaf, and liver and onions.
Any worthy diner can crank out a fine cheeseburger, and the double-patty version at Norm's ($10.25, $11.95 with long, golden fries) is a thing of simple greatness. Dueling five-ounce patties, plump enough for juice-oozing but crisped on the edges by expert spatula choreography, are griddle-hot and gently melt slices of cheese. Torn lettuce and sliced tomato provide contrast, and a plain but fresh bun but provide ample support.
My fave so far, though, is the hot turkey sandwich with gravy ($9.50), which might also be called the "delicious nap-inducer." Carved slices of roast breast are layered across the toasted bread of your choice, topped with sliced cheddar, then ladled with rich golden-brown gravy. It comes with fries, so don't hesitate to drag them through the gravy en route to your mouth. In college — also at a diner not far from campus — we called this creation the "Hot Jesus" because it would save your 3 a.m. soul after a long night of liquor-fueled shenanigans.
It's a good thing to live in a region where diners survive and prosper, and this newly minted Norm's is fine, indeed.
171 Bridge St., Groton
Cuisine: Classic diner staples
Atmosphere: Under new ownership, this iconic standalone diner has been cleaned, freshly painted and reconfigured.
Service: Happily concerned folks quick to refill your cup and make sure your experience is pleasant.
Hours: 5 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; open 24 hours Fri. and Sat.; 5 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.
Prices: Reasonable for typically large portions, with nothing over $15.
Credit cards: All major
Handicap access: Steps, narrow inside aisle