George

You may be wondering why we’ve never written about the A1 Diner in Gardiner, a very popular place right here in central Maine. Well, we just figured everyone already knew about this wonderful eatery, which has even been featured on national television and had an entire book written about it.

But then we decided to do it because the A1 really is a special place. The Worcester Diner #790 was delivered by truck and installed at 3 Bridge St. in Gardiner in 1946. It immediately became popular with employees of Gardiner’s factories, who appreciated the large portions and low prices.

The diner still has low prices and large portions and remains a local gathering place, but today it also draws customers from all over the state and many tourists as well. While they still serve lots of traditional food, the creative cooks always offer interesting things on the menu.

Mike Giberson started cooking when he was 10 years old. After working in Boston as both a waiter and cook, Mike moved back to Gardiner in 1985 to cook for his dad, Al, who purchased the diner with his wife, Elizabeth, in 1979. In 1986, Mike’s partner Neil Anderson joined him, and they took ownership of the diner in 1988.

Our server, Kim, warmly welcomed us to the diner and was helpful in taking us through the extensive menu. The diner has a good selection of Maine beers, so I started with a Baxter Stowaway while Linda enjoyed a Shipyard Export. My cup of flavorful chili ($3) made me wish I’d ordered a bowl.

I love the opportunity offered to dine on everything from beans and franks to fancy curries and lamb tagine. On this visit I opted for the fish tacos ($12.95). The fish was perfectly cooked, lightly fried in a chili rub, crispy outside and soft inside, and the three tacos were filled with sour cream, cilantro, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and cucumbers. Yes, this was a feast. And the sriracha on the side added some very nice heat.

While you’ll come here for the food, the knowledge that this place is a real community will bring you back. After all, you’ll eventually want to try the Undertaker’s Wife’s Sandwich, a favorite of the lady at Staples Funeral Home. You’ll need to visit to find out the ingredients to that sandwich.

Linda

While at a book talk recently, George asked if anyone had suggestions of places they’d recommend. A woman stood up and simply asked, “”Why haven’t you written about the A1 Diner?” Why indeed? We have eaten there for years. That question propelled us forward.

Stepping into the diner is like stepping back in time. A counter seats 16 and six booths line the front wall. It’s a genuine diner, but it values fresh, local food prepared onsite. And though you will certainly be able to find great breakfasts and diner food such as burgers, meatloaf and fried chicken, you will be surprised by some of the other offerings.

I still fondly recall a curry dish I ate here probably 20 years ago. Yes, some of their specials are creative indeed. Of the 10 offered the night of our visit, three remain as constants, our server Kim told us. You’ll find Oaklands Farm Burger, Greek Salad with Calamari and Fish Tacos as regulars.

The menu that night also included Chicken Cacciatore, a Scallop BLT, a Lamb and Goat Cheeseburger, and a Chicken Peanut Coconut Burger. Not your ordinary diner food, for sure. Soups are homemade and served with their famous flaky biscuits. They are as good as you could possibly find.

We asked to sample a couple soups and were brought Creamy Butternut and Truck Stop Chili. The butternut soup was aptly named — so, so creamy. It was like a warm hug and the perfect starter for a cold night.

Trying to decide what to order is a dilemma. The menu is lengthy and everything sounds good. There are 10 burgers (plus the two on the specials board). They have Soba Noodles dishes as well as Po’ Boys. Holy cow.

I like the fact that one can order lunch or dinner from 11 a.m. until closing. I felt like a lighter option of dinner and perused the sandwich selection. Again, lots of choices, but it was the Grilled Turkey, Avocado and Bacon that won me over. Clearly this “lighter option” was a hearty meal. I ordered mine on marbled rye, and it was piled high with turkey and topped with caramelized onions. It was crispy outside with both sweet and salty flavors accenting the turkey.

Sandwiches come with pickles and chips, but I really wanted to try the fries. I’d already been tempted by the smell wafting over from another table, so there was no stopping me. They are freshly prepared and taste of real potatoes with the skins on. Crispy outside and soft and creamy inside — these were exquisite.

If you have yet to visit the A1 Diner, you need to experience it. If you haven’t been in a while, put it on your to-do list.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed by town in the “Best of Maine” section.

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