“It seems like diner is not the correct designation for this establishment,” said John, a word person and friend from junior high school.
There are four life-size faux palm trees distributed among the three dining areas. And small hanging red lamps over each table. Blue and orange patterned banquettes. A large blue glass and chrome chandelier over the cashier’s area.
Tops American Grill
WHERE: 351 Duanesburg Road, Rotterdam. 356-0697, Facebook
WHEN: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
HOW MUCH: $39.24 without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Wheelchair
accessible (ramp), large parking area, all major credit cards accepted, noise level permits
conversation, breakfast all day, take-out
Tops’ large space was partitioned into three smaller “rooms” — a bar area, a dining room and a third dining space with a fireplace at the far end. We sat in the middle area where nearly the entire diner was visible, including a window to the kitchen.
Predictably decent food and service at reasonable prices are all part of a diner’s character. But Tops American Grill in Rotterdam brings the customer beyond the standard diner experience. The décor alone takes the establishment to a new level. Consider the not-too-subtle glittering blue and cream floor tiles. I felt as if I were waltzing on fireflies. Tasteful glitz. Subdued sparkle.
“This reminds me of an ocean liner,” John remarked about the hanging lamps and the shiny floor.
We were seated immediately. It was near noon and the restaurant was beginning to fill. Server Heather asked for our drink order: a 12-ounce orange juice for my guest ($2.89) and an unsweetened iced tea with two pieces of lemon ($2.59) for me. New to the dinner companion role, John asked about his duties. I explained the three parts: observe, taste and comment. John felt he was up to the task.
Plenty of categories
As in most diners, the menu was long with many categories — something for everybody at any time of day (hours are from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, and extended to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). The full bar offered everything from draft beer to specialty cocktails, wine and old-fashioned milk shakes.
Appetizers, salads, pizzas and soup are available for those wishing lighter fare, while steaks, seafood, pasta and chicken can be had as full dinners. Sandwiches, wraps and burgers are also offered, and of course, what diner doesn’t have breakfast all day?
Nostalgic, John chose the hot open meatloaf sandwich ($10.99) under a category designated as Comfort Food. Pan-seared, the two thick slices of meatloaf were arranged on white bread, and both meat and a mound of real mashed potatoes were covered with beef gravy.
“[This is] reminiscent of the open-faced sandwiches I had at Woolworth’s in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut, when I went as a kid with my mom,” he said wistfully. “The ultimate beef and gravy experience.”
Although John spruced it up with a small dish of excellent cole slaw, the open-faced sandwich was not the healthiest of lunches (he admitted it was a little on the salty side, but that’s to be expected, he explained), but the meal was comfort food at its finest.
A classic reuben
My pastrami Reuben ($10.99) was a classic: sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese on grilled rye. Simple. Elegant and accompanied by both Russian dressing and deli mustard so I could choose (I’m a mustard fan on corned beef and pastrami).
A small Greek salad ($2 extra) was also placed on the large oval plate. It was small in size but large on flavor and ingredients. Tops makes its own Greek dressing. The salad was topped with a generous portion of feta cheese and included grape tomatoes, cucumbers, pepperoncini peppers, Kalamata olives, red onions and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves).
“Room for dessert?” inquired attentive server Heather. The five-page dessert menu had its own little holder on the table, right out in front of the customer, so the idea of something sweet after the meal would remain visible. Cakes, special pastries like baklava, ice cream, pudding, cheesecakes and an assortment of pies. Like the regular menu, there was something for everybody.
It turned out my old friend and I had more in common than just our hometown of Fairfield, Connecticut. We chose the same desserts we always do — cherry cheesecake for him and crème brulee for me. Or maybe it was the other way around. It really didn’t matter.
We had already agreed to share the way we did as kids: you cut and I pick.
We dove into the crème brulee. The torched amber sugar glazed top stopped us cold. It was perfectly browned and thick. It took several jabs of our spoons to crack the glaze. Our persistence was worth the effort.
The creamy custard beneath the resistant glassy topping was heavenly with a little more vanilla flavoring than I was used to. But the sliced fresh strawberry on top provided enough tartness to make me forget the abundance of vanilla.
John and I took the cheesecake home for later, and it was devoured with as much eagerness and joy as the crème brulee had been earlier.
Our tab came to under $40 without tax and tip — a veritable bargain for a well- prepared and well-served meal in enjoyable surroundings.
We vowed to return soon.