By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
In a varnished wooden booth at Jigger’s one autumn day so cold that the windows cloud with steam, we ask the waitress for a cup of soup followed by the hot turkey lunch. She scrunches up her brow, tapping pencil eraser to chin as she ruminates. Her eyes light up, and she leans over the boomerang-patterned laminate table, giving us the wink of a mischievous accomplice. “You could get the full dinner,” she confides. “It comes with soup, and I calculated: It’ll cost about the same as the lunch and a soup—plus you get more turkey.” The dinner it is! Later, when she brings a chocolate milkshake in its shiny beaker with a tall soda glass to pour it into, she offers to bring water, too. “You’ll need it to help guzzle down all that shake.”
Kind waitresses are just part of why JIGGER’S DINER is a pharos for travelers south of Providence along the old Post Road. Another reason is its good looks. This small establishment, a fixture of East Greenwich’s Main Street since Harry Truman’s administration, is a vintage diner through and through, manufactured by the estimable (now closed) Worcester Dining Car Company in western Massachusetts. As roadside archaeology, it is a treasured survivor from the age of stainless steel: gorgeous blue enameled siding out front, a gently curving barrel roof like a railroad dining cars, a sunburst pattern on the grill’s silver hood, and the inviting aromas of sizzling corned beef hash, steaming muffins, and hot coffee in the air from 6 A.M. every day.
There are other pretty diners in the Northeast, but not many where you’d necessarily want to have a meal. Jigger’s is different—a swell place to sight-see and an even better place to eat. For all the patent classicism of the setting, the food that comes off Jigger’s grill and from its tiny backroom kitchen is far better than classic. We aren’t suggesting that it is dramatically different from ordinary diner fare; this is no yuppie fantasy of New American Roadfood complete with ten-dollar hamburgers. Rather, it is diner fare elevated to blue-plate art, and the price of a meal is still in the low to mid single-digit range ($2.50 to $8.95).
That turkey plate, for example, is a meal that can make a workaday lunch hour seem like a holiday. Thick-cut pieces of roasted bird—all moist white meat—are heaped upon a pallet of bread slices, smothered with grandmotherly gravy, and accompanied by chunky mashed potatoes, a handsome little dinner roll, and a pile of peas, corn, and carrots that at first appear to be canned but turn out to be just-cooked vegetables with garden flavor and appealing tooth resistance. For ninety-five cents extra you can order a dish of homemade applesauce—tart, spiced essence of the fruit so intense it makes you think of apples as something sinfully rich. The turkey is at its best on Thursdays, when it’s first roasted and served with freshly made stuffing, cranberry sauce, and dark meat on the plate along with white. (The rest of the week, dark meat is set aside to make savory turkey croquettes.)
Meat loaf is on the menu every day, and like the hot turkey it is a positively elegant version of the diner standard—finely textured, masterfully spiced—nearly as luxurious as pâté and presented three modest-sized slices to an order (or inside a sandwich) underneath a blanket of zesty brown gravy. The excellent mashed potatoes are an ideal companion, but it is also possible to choose steak fries, which are irregularly shaped logs of potato fried to a golden crisp, large enough that the interior of each is creamy-soft.
Upright meals such as these should start with soup. Cream of mushroom, squash-apple, and minestrone thick with disks of kielbasa are some of the homespun varieties on the menu at this time of year, although you cannot be certain that tomorrow’s carrot soup will have the same bracing shot of fresh dill as the one you enjoyed two weeks ago. Like many good cooks, the three soup wizards at Jigger’s use no written recipes; they wing it each day based on which cook feels inspired and what ingredients happen to be available. One thing you can count on, though, is chowder—served every Friday with crusty fried clam cakes on the side. Sometimes traditional Rhode Island chowder (the clear-broth, clammy variety) is offered; there is also a second chowder available, known as Jigger’s Chowder, which is creamy like the New England archetype and embellished with a colorful confetti of diced vegetables.
Jigger’s is the best place we know to eat West Bay—style Rhode Island johnnycakes. These cornmeal griddle-cakes, served for breakfast or as a side dish with lunch, are a passion in Rhode Island, where they are always spelled without the “h.” On the other side of Narragansett Bay, cooks tend to make johnny cakes that are broad, dry, and nearly see-through thin. The West Bay cakes that Jigger’s makes are chubby little rounds, scarcely two inches wide and at least two fork tines thick, with a crunchy brown surface sandwiching the moist, steamy meal within. Their sandy texture and unalloyed corn taste are deliciously anachronous; to eat them is to savor the most fundamental American foodstuff. In fact, historians speculate that their name derives from Colonial times, when they were known as “journey cakes” because, once cooked, they could be carried on a trip.
“A lot of people come in here for johnnycakes, and johnnycakes are all they’ll have,” says proprietor and chef Carol Shriner. “Others don’t like them because of the gritty feel of the meal we use. But I can tell you, they are authentic. I get my corn from the Harry Here Farm, one of the last places where they still grow White-cap flint corn.” (According to a Rhode Island law passed three-quarters of a century ago, flint corn, which yields merely one or two ears per stalk and is too hard to eat on the cob, is the only variety that can be used for true johnnycake meal.) “Once you have the right stuff, there is nothing to the recipe. It is just a matter of pouring boiling water over the pure ground flint corn, adding a bit of salt and sugar and just enough milk to moisten it, then cooking it on a buttered griddle.” At Jigger’s, the johnnycakes usually come with ordinary pancake syrup, but seventy-five cents extra buys you pure maple, warmed and brought to the table in a little carafe.
We love breakfast at Jigger’s, especially at counter seats that provide a view of the short-order cook working the griddle At is a scenic tableau: golden home fried potatoes warming in a pile, moist corned beef hash sizzling under heavy grill weights, johnnycakes sending a sweet corn smell into the air, and eggs frying on the grill or poaching in the bubbling depths of a skillet.
Above this scene is a blackboard menu on which the day’s specials are written—a Greek omelet, about a half-dozen kinds of muffin, and one item that says simply “Banana honey walnut.”
“Is that banana honey walnut pancakes?” someone at the counter asks.
Carol Shriner turns from the grill and looks up at the blackboard incredulously. “No wonder no one’s been ordering them,” she says, climbing on a stool and chalking the world “pancakes” on the board. They turn out to be handsome, evenly tanned, old-fashioned flapjacks, lumpy with banana and walnut chunks the kind of dish you might find pictured in a color illustration from a 1920s brochure entitled, “Let’s Eat More Bananas.”
All of the breakfasts at Jigger’s are pleasures to see: perfect sunny side up eggs glistening with butter; fragrant gingerbread pancakes dolloped with applesauce; eggs Benedict dusted with paprika and garnished with a spill of tiny wild Maine blueberries. Such comely food in so exquisite an environment makes this restaurant an aesthetic as well as a culinary treasure.
Incredibly, the wizard who created Jigger’s—or we should say recreated it—had no prior restaurant experience. Carol Shriner was a biochemist by trade, working at Brown University during the 1980s. At that time Jigger’s was shuttered, then turned into a resale clothing store, and then used as a storage facility for the paint and wallpaper shop next door.
Meanwhile, Carol’s extracurricular joy was growing vegetables. She and her ex-husband became the state’s largest producers of organic vegetables, which Carol sold at the farmers market in Kingston. “Tomatoes were our finest crop,” she recalls. “We had a different kind each time of the growing year. Melons were big, too: We picked Ambrosia cantaloupes when they were ripe and brought them to market. We had sweet peppers, banana peppers, jalapenos, and serranos. We harvested maple syrup, and we raised a hundred turkeys every year for Thanksgiving.”
The derelict diner came up for sale about the time Carol’s research grant ended. She bought it on a whim, undaunted by how much work it needed. Only the original green-tile walls and floor and some of the woodwork remained; the rest of the interior had been stripped away. The booths were gone, as was the kitchen.
Like the restoration of a vintage automobile, rebuilding Jigger’s required the vision of an artist, the hands of an artisan, and a collector’s obsession with detail. To recreate the sunburst pattern over the grill, Carol referred to photographs of the interior taken in the early 1970s; she was able to count the reflections on the old hood, which told her exactly how to shape the sheet metal for the new one. Red counter stools were found in Iowa to complement the original green ones that remained. Wooden booths were obtained when the Colonial Diner of Brockton, Massachusetts, was torn down in February, 1992. “They had five coats of paint on them,” Carol recalls. “I stripped them down to bare wood and finished them with marine varnish.”
Jigger’s reopened in July, 1992, and it is now a gathering place for appetites of every stripe. On any morning, the booths and stools are filled with a convivial crowd: local business people who stop in for quick muffins; long-distance travelers and truckers in need of sustenance; diner aficionados who ooh and ah over the glittering fixtures; and gabby coffee hounds in no apparent hurry to budge from their perch at the counter. “Are you done with that paper?” someone on a distant stool calls to a stranger. “Pass the sports section, would you?” We sat near a couple of old-timers in matching flannel shirts. He wore starchy new denim overalls; she wore patched jeans. They were having their weekend “usual”—coffee and johnnycakes with pure maple syrup—and they told us they remembered the day Jigger’s was trucked to town, in the summer of 1950. They were newlyweds then. A band played to welcome the shiny new restaurant, and the couple came in for ham sandwiches and coffee. “We’re glad it’s back,” the woman said. “Main Street isn’t right if Jigger’s isn’t open.”