Photo By Mark Roessler
Alex Washut and Chris Ware at work in their new kitchen
Somewhere I once read that Sting, the British pop star, said he had to buy an apartment in New York City because ever since he first toured in America, he'd become obsessed with the idea of a bottomless cup of coffee. He needed a fancy pad in Greenwich Village so he could wake up and be within reach of a diner.
It's easy for those of us Stateside to take this American institution for granted. Nowhere else can you find such shrines to breakfast satisfaction as you find here in the American diner.
In Holland, they eat pancakes for dinner and have no idea what maple syrup is. Ask for an omelet for breakfast in France, and you'll be told to wait until lunch. In Italy, forget refills on your coffee; they charge you if you want to drink it sitting down.
But on this side of the Atlantic, those of us faithful to our eggs, a side of bacon or sausage and toast all have our local places of worship. We're indignant if we can't find a suitable substitute while traveling out of town. Some mornings, we just need a place to hunker down and enjoy our sacrament for as long as we please.
As when a church parishioner loses a beloved pastor, change comes hard to the dedicated diner patron. A new cook, drastic menu alterations, or a change in management can be hard to weather. Sometimes even a seemingly slight change of course can result in loyal customers defecting, or even a long-beloved diner foundering.
Sadly, such was the fate of Jake's, Northampton's downtown diner at the intersection of Main Street and King Street, wedged between the Calvin Theater and Silverscape Design.
Last year, David Workman, the former owner and manager, accepted an offer for the business he'd run since 1986. Almost overnight new management took over. For the most part, the menu stayed the same, but Workman's eclectic character—represented in part by his collection of Baskin prints, Americana, and antique advertising that had been gathered over a lifetime—was replaced by management and artwork that was louder and brighter, and jarred with the diner's sense of tradition.
The staff lost their bounce. Longtime employees sought new horizons. Less than a year later, the new owner called it quits. Jake's, it seemed, was no more.
In October, though, after a summer of construction, Jake's doors have reopened and slowly the devout have started returning. One by one, they've been finding their prayers answered.
Chris Ware and Alex Washut attended kindergarten together in Florence and have been friends ever since. As teens they spent many a late night at Jake's, "watching Saturday turn into Sunday," Washut said in a recent interview with the Advocate.
Both went on to careers in kitchens across the Northeast—Washut at one point was the head chef at the Oaks Bluff Oyster Bar and Grill on the Vineyard and Ware served in the same role at Northampton's Brewery—but when the diner became available early this summer, with some parental nudging, they jumped at the chance to take it over. They say they don't regret changing their focus from appetizers and entrees to breakfast and lunch fare.
"Running your own place, having everything exactly the way you want it," Ware said, "it's every chef's dream. It doesn't get better than this."
With the restaurant's windows sealed up for much of the summer as it underwent a facelift, some may have worried that the two chefs might be fixing something that wasn't broken. As it turns out, though, the transformation was less of an upgrade and more of a refurbishing. Like the wonders worked on the Tin Man by the great and powerful Oz, Jake's has been scrubbed clean and given a fresh suit, and it looks sharp.
Located in one of the corner shops outside the Calvin Theater and with a sweeping view of the courthouse and downtown, the dining room has a classic feel. With its long, marble-topped bar and dark brown wooden paneling throughout, you can picture a gumshoe at the bar, staring in his cup of joe, fretting over a case—or a party of high school footballers flirting with the table of cheerleaders. Instead of attempting to improve this interior, Ware and Washut gave it a good scrub-down, painted the ceiling, and let the place shine.
Most of the improvements are in the kitchen and on the menu.
As much as the place feels like a quintessential greasy spoon, it's difficult to find the grease. Though the menu has never been elaborate, it's now even more streamlined. Along with all the likely suspects, the menu also includes ingredients like kale and goat cheese. For breakfast I tried the signature Jake's Downtowner, a scramble with veggies, mushrooms, cheese and bacon. Everything was fresh and scrumptious; the homefries were particularly well seasoned and perfectly roasted on the grill.
Also of note are the new varieties of hash served at Jake's. I tried the chicken style, which was tasty, if not a little dry, but I was told a corn beef variety and others were on the way. The very notion of a hash of the day seems cause for celebration.
While Ware and Washut say the diner's legendary turkey reuben sandwich may well return as a special, it's no longer featured on the lunch menu. The bountiful chop salad and huge roast beef sandwiches my friend and I enjoyed more than make up for the loss. Next time, I've got my eye on the veal hot dog.
The two friends and chefs say they've just begun to hone their menu. Soon, they hope to resume opening late nights on weekends, and they also have plans to offer dinner some evenings.
But in the meantime, Ware and Washut appear to be having a blast preparing dishes together and having them served by a crew of warm, friendly waitpeople who are busy learning patrons' names and the regular orders of the new faithful.
Jake's is back in town.