Does the presence of celebrities in a restaurant make the food taste better? Do the famous eat where the grub is good? A recent visit to the Whately Diner (sometimes called the Fillin’ Station), at a truck stop just off I-91 in the Massachusetts town of the same name, raised these unexpected culinary questions as I forked a plate full with eggs, home fries and corned beef hash. Such thoughts would not normally occur to me while enjoying some of my favorite comfort food, but the menu listed several of the big names that had stopped in for a meal, including Michael Douglas, Ernest Borgnine, B.B. King, Christopher Reeve, Vanilla Ice, Jason Robard, and the Beastie Boys. A scene from the 1999 film “In Dreams,” with Annette Benning and Robert Downey, Jr., was filmed on the premises. Looking around as nonchalantly as possible, coffee mug in hand, I confirmed that none of these personages, alive or dead, were present.
Built around 1960, the diner has the classic space age styling of that era—large outwardly canted windows, a wide flared canopy, and gleaming stainless steel siding. The sparkling interior included mini jukeboxes at the tables, pink and green terrazzo floors, and tiered pendant lights that looked like upside down stainless steel wedding cakes. Given the architecture, a visit by the futuristic animated television character George Jetson seemed more likely than any of the idols that had actually been there. Without anyone to stargaze at, I sat back and enjoyed the sweet smell of frying food, and the hum of conversation from a clutch of truckers in the corner and two men wearing ties who were going over documents about a sewer line replacement.
It seemed strange that such an unassuming place as the Whately Diner would be a celebrity magnet, and when Urbanspoon, the online restaurant review site, published its “Celeb Hot Spots” list a week later, I was not surprised to find the venerable eatery had not made the cut. If you’re in New York and want to meet Jay Z, Bono, or LeBron James, head over to the Spotted Pig. In Miami you might find Miley Cyrus or Leonardo DiCaprio at Cecconi’s. Try Andrea’s in Las Vegas if George Clooney or Lady Gaga are of interest. Fig & Olive in Los Angeles is the place to find Halle Berry, Johnny Depp, Jennifer Aniston, or Sir Paul McCartney. If you just want a good home style meal, head to the Whately Diner regardless of who’s there.
I suppose that with the happy endorphins of a celebrity sighting flowing through the body, a meal might have some extra zip. Then again, being star-struck could reduce the flavor to cardboard as the senses are hijacked far beyond the plate. Regardless, restaurants are about more than the building, interior design, or even the food. They are also about the people who gather there. The presence of the famous, even in retrospect, can amp the ambiance of a spot, add to its allure, stir stories that rouse our interest, create that coveted sense of place. Of course, it’s regular people on any ordinary day that truly define the character of everything from taverns to white-table-cloth bistros. Occasional visits by the famous do, however, add a layer of intrigue.
Eating at the Whately Diner, I felt a connection to the big wigs and superstars that have eaten there. No doubt, they did so for the same reasons I did: a hearty meal and a quick, easy stop. A dark haired waitress with tattoos decorating the length of one arm recommended the made-on-premises corned beef hash. It was slightly sweet, a bit tangy, and laced with strips of potato. Unusual and mouthwatering, it’s reason enough to return. If the place is packed with celebrities, they better make room. I’ll be hungry for more than an autograph.