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Good Food, Conversation Abound in Bay State Diners

From AAA Horizons Newspaper

Ah, diners. Diners are to America what pubs are to Ireland and what bistros are to France: A social center for the masses, where every stool is equal. The diner is the unofficial town hall, where democracy and blueberry pie rule.

The diner was born in Providence, RI, in 1872, but it was two Massachusetts companies – the Worcester Lunch Car Company and the J.B. Judkins Company – that helped perfect the form and made the diner an American icon.

Phil Paleologos, live from the Shawmut . . .

When one thinks of diners, two things come to mind: good food and good conversation. One usually surpasses the other, and rarely, if ever, do both reach the pinnacle of perfection. But such is the case at New Bedford’s Shawmut Diner, which serves up heaping portions of mouth-watering food and even better talk.

Although the fare is undeniably tasty, the talk is what sets the Shawmut apart from its peers in Massachusetts, which has experienced a diner revival in recent years. When customers saunter up to a stool on weekday mornings, Shawmut owner Phil Paleologos is already in a booth of his own – a radio booth – hosting the American Breakfast Radio Show, a thought-provoking, issue-oriented talk show that airs nationally on the Langer Broadcasting and Cable Radio networks.

On a recent morning, the talk ranged from the Blues Brothers to the Civil War, and from jury duty to the moral bankruptcy of the Clinton presidency. Paleologos even tackled the issue of low voter turnout, which is dangerous, he says, because “that means that the minority is ruling everyone else.”

Paleologos frequently includes his regulars in his broadcasts, asking opinions of people like Woody Murphy, a Dartmouth High teacher and football coach.

“The Shawmut is a nice comfortable place where you get good food cooked your way at a reasonable price,” says Murphy, who, for the record, does vote. “Phil knows his customers by name, and I think you’ll notice that most of the people here are regulars.”

The same holds true at Al Mac’s Diner, a Fall River fixture. Stability and hefty portions of good grub are the hallmarks of Al Mac’s, where even the cook, Ken Banville, has been a staple for more than a decade. After years of cooking across the country, the Fall River native came home to Al Mac’s.

“I work out front and I think the people like to see the cook out there; I put on a little show for them,” says Banville. “ I talk to the customers and get to know them all. It’s almost like a big family. We’ve had some old customers who have passed away and you feel it.”

That sense of kinship was once felt at the world-famous Rosebud Diner in Somerville’s Davis Square, but the nature of the area has changed. Families once dominated the neighborhood, but have been supplanted by transient professionals and students. Despite the constant customer turnover, the staff, led by manager Helen DeFrancisco, does its best to make visitors feel at home.

“People look at a diner as a homey, comfy place,” says the personable DeFrancisco. “We treat customers like people; we don’t take your order and walk away without saying anything.

“The majority of my staff loves to harass the customers,” adds DeFrancisco, laughing. “God forbid you come in for breakfast and don’t finish, never mind not eating your broccoli. We’ve been known to feed you.”

(To listen to Phil Paleologos, visit www.dinershow.com, click “live broadcast” and click “on air” icon. To find a Massachusetts diner near you, visit www.dinercity.com.)