At The Table: Newest Lunch in Schenectady keeps old formula — hospitality and honest fare

It’s an old-school vibe inside Newest Lunch, with stools at the counter, cozy booths and plenty of familiar faces on the walls. Lower right: Homemade chicken soup.
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It’s an old-school vibe inside Newest Lunch, with stools at the counter, cozy booths and plenty of familiar faces on the walls. Lower right: Homemade chicken soup.

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SCHENECTADY — I fell in love at Newest Lunch. It’s a marvelous time capsule on Albany Street, an unassuming place that provided some unforgettable moments — and food.

In a front, sunny, awning-covered window that faces onto Albany Street and the Summit Towers across the road, a neon sign hangs: OPEN.

On a bright, cold day folks walked along the sidewalks, rode bicycles, waited for buses. The building stands alone between parking lots and chain-link fences.

Newest Lunch is an institution: It’s been around in some form at this location for more than 100 years. You’ll see why.

Sheryl held the door open for a laughing, happy trio exiting. Clearly they were well fed.

Good sign. We ventured in.

It’s one open space, with a metal-edged formica counter in two parts and a line of spinny stools along the left, a row of wooden, upholstered booths on the right. I liked the stainless steel backsplash, the Bun-O-Matic coffee system with metal pots, the Pepsi soda fountain and clock.

Some cooking goes on in the front window, evidenced by the hot dogs rolling on the grill, but the kitchen is in the back.

I liked the curved stainless steel edges and details of the counters, and the foot rest below the red cushioned stools.

We slid into an open booth between coats hanging on hooks, our neighbor’s heavy winter outerwear. The blue linoleum tabletop had lighter streaks worn from plates slid over countless times. I had a good view of the kitchen.

We examined the menu, tucked behind the metal napkin dispenser. Newest Lunch is open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. The menu is divided between breakfast and lunch.

Two eggs, with home fries and toast, is $6.49. The breakfast combo comes with a short stack of pancakes or French toast, two eggs and choice of meat for $11.99. A breakfast sandwich, two eggs and cheese, is $5.29.

“That’s the place that serves hot dogs,” said my friend, Schenectady native Kathy, when I asked her about Newest Lunch. They still do, the White Eagle brand ($2.75) with condiments, Famous Meat Sauce and raw onions included. Add a bit more for cheese or fried onions.

A hot-dog combo includes two dogs and a side ($8.99). Choose from soup, macaroni salad, potato salad or fries. Everything’s homemade.

A 6-ounce burger with lettuce, tomato and mayo is $7.19. Try the Newest Burger, a larger patty with meat sauce, onions, lettuce, tomato and mayo ($9.99).

Have a beef gyro with tzatziki sauce or souvlaki, a fish fry, chicken tenders or a Philly sub (all $9.59). Get a grilled cheese sandwich ($5.49) or a tuna melt ($7.99).

You get the idea. Diner-type, honest food, reasonably priced, old-school in the best way. Try the tapioca ($4.49).

Sheryl’s coffee arrived in a heavy white mug, the kind you wrap both hands around, along with metal creamer and glass sugar dispenser. All available on eBay under “Retro Diner Supplies.” But Newest Lunch isn’t being ironic; it’s who they are.

My large fountain drink came with a wedge of lemon and nostalgia. I’ve had just this same-tasting Pepsi in a tall clear plastic tumbler, the one with the script logo, not the new one. It tastes like fountain, not canned or bottled soda, and it was just right. I peeled the paper wrapper off the straw, satisfied.

My chicken noodle soup ($4.59) came out quickly. Soups are homemade and come in one size. The other soup of the day was beef orzo. Take home a pint for $5.29. Varieties rotate on a weekly schedule.

Theirs is a multi-paragraph bowl of soup. Start with gently flavored, slightly salty pale chicken broth. It has the kind of body that comes from using chicken bones. Little drops of fat float on top to show how rich and nourishing it is.

Add vegetables, well-cooked and soft: carrot, in quartered coins, dark green celery slices, onion cooked to near invisibility. Take the meat, light and dark, off the bones and slice and tear into right-sized pieces.

Then pasta, the friendliest kind: bow ties. Let them soak up the broth until soft. Some of the bow ties will untie in the middle or tear at the edges, and you don’t even have to chew them. They slide right down, one mouthful at a time.

There’s no garnish, just two packets of saltines. What more do you need? The heavy white china bowl holds the heat, keeping the soup warm until you scoop the last spoonful of broth.

It is not meant to be fancy. But in its simplicity, it is sumptuous, extravagant.

I spooned up the last drop and came out of my soup stupor when a plate piled high with french fries arrived at the table.

If it’s the small serving ($3.69), it’s whopping, a dinner plate piled high with hot, skin-on, crispy and browned unseasoned potatoes. Very nice. I poured salt over and grasped the red ketchup squirter — it was cold.

Points here to Newest Lunch for keeping the ketchup (and mustard) in the fridge, where it belongs. I barely made a dent in the fries.

Sheryl got breakfast, a short stack (two pieces) of French toast with four slices of bacon ($9.99), a paper condiment cup of butter and syrup in a glass jar.

The cook who brought out our food saw me taking photos. “I’ll take your photo,” he offered. So he took a few, to our delight.

“The bacon is nice and crispy,” Sheryl said approvingly. “There’s a little cinnamon in the toast. The syrup is really good,” she added, admiring the syrup-appropriate glass container with little round handle.

“Look how thin the bacon is,” she said, showing me. She made quick work of her breakfast and said she’d be walking around the block eight times later.

My hot dog was grilled on the rollers, a little browned. I should have opted for the all-beef kind; this one was a little bland. Normally it’s served as The Works, with Famous Meat Sauce, fresh onions and mustard, so who would notice? I’m probably the only person older than 5 who orders a plain dog.

Their Famous Meat Sauce didn’t do anything for me, I don’t like anybody’s. I noticed this sauce had herbs, or some seasoning, which made it different than the usual salty stuff. The bun was soft and fresh.

We sat for a while waiting for our bill. I put my wallet near the end of the table. Then I took out my credit card, displaying it. Finally I asked the server for our check. “You just go up and pay,” she instructed. Oh.

At the register she tallied our meal, reading aloud each item and keying them into the machine. It’s very old-school until out comes the handheld card reader.

The final bill wasn’t itemized, but when I added it up using the prices for the smaller-sized drinks and fries it came out almost exactly to their total, $25.30

With tax and tip, our meal came to $32.96.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the photo collages, made from snipped and clipped photos — the developed kind, taken with a film camera. Images of their customers, elbows on the counter or cozied up in booths, with arms around each other, some shy, some smiling.

The photos were taken years ago by the owner’s brother. It started out as just a few, but everyone wanted their photo displayed. Now there are dozens of frames. Newest Lunch has had a lot of regular customers.

I didn’t love everything at Newest Lunch, but what I loved I was all-in for: the soup, the nostalgia, the nice people. “It would be nice to have this in our neighborhood,” said Sheryl.

Stop in for old-school hospitality and some seriously good, honest food. You can see why it has endured.

Caroline Lee is a freelance writer who lives in Troy. Reach her at [email protected].

Newest Lunch

WHERE: 715 Albany St., Schenectady; (518) 377-6580; thenewestlunch.com

WHEN: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday

HOW MUCH: $32.96 with tax and tip

MORE INFO: Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Not ADA compliant. Accommodations made for children’s meals. Parking on street.

Categories: Food, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Schenectady

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