Winslow’s (almost) homer

Ah, summertime, and with it comes the great American family vacation. Nothing says “rest and relaxation” like loading the kids into the ol’ truckster for a nine-hour drive. Oooh, yeah.

But it’s not all bad. Road trips bring their own vacation traditions, things you seldom do the rest of the year. One of ours, a carry-over from when I was the kid in the back seat, is stopping at a Cracker Barrel for a meal, usually a big brunch. Time was, a place like Cracker Barrel, with its “country store,” wasn’t uncommon, and it wasn’t an interstate-fueled franchise, it was a way of life. The general store was so named more or less because you could find generally everything there, from farm implements to a bowl of whatever was cooking back in the kitchen that day.
Then recently, I read about a throwback to those amazing stores, Winslow’s Home in U. City. Only the over-the-counter fare promised to be a step above chicken-fried steak, cornbread and turnip greens (not that there’s anything wrong with that). So Kathy and I strapped the kids into yon truckster for a blessedly brief drive up to Delmar. If nothing else, we surmised, the boys would enjoy prowling around the racks and shelves of things whimsical and practical. If the food was good, too, so much the better.

As soon as we stepped in, two things immediately hit us. First, we knew we’d chosen well; of the handful of tables inside, two were already taken by families with kids around the boys’ age. That’s always a reassuring sign for a parent venturing into the unknown. Second, and perhaps more overwhelming, was the feeling of having stepped – no, leaped – back in time. Yes, some of the products were unmistakably modern, but the shelves and racks and tables crowded with merchandize that ran the gamut from umbrellas to WD-40 to organic coffee beans gave the room an amazing authenticity. This is no mercantile poseur; this is a general store!

Oh, and a restaurant, too.

Everything’s out on display at Winslow’s Home, from the get-it-yourself drinks (The boys seemed disproportionately excited about the concept of taking a chocolate milk box out of the refrigerator case, but who knows what gets kids going?) to the open kitchen, where chef Ben Poremba plies his trade. The ever-changing menu is posted on huge chalkboards on the walls adjoining the kitchen.

Kathy was wooed by the daily special – a sumptuous chicken tagine that was fall-apart tender and smothered in a rich sauce studded with plump raisins and dried apricots. I spotted a sandwich with salami, Cheddar cheese, caramelized onions and greens that looked like a winner. I was disappointed when I was told that sandwiches are the “lunch menu only” and weren’t made for dinner. Not to worry, though; there’s always an overrun made, and sure enough, in the refrigerator case I found my desired sandwich waiting patiently. I plucked it out, handed it over to the kitchen and moments later I had a toasty panini.

Eagle-eyed Brendan spotted the kids’ menu right away, and declared his choice (grilled cheese). Duncan took the other offering, a PB&J. The boys’ sandwiches came with carrot sticks, a cookie and milk, providing them with a well-rounded meal. Fresh-baked cookies are always a treat, and a rarity at most restaurants; here, they were all the impetus the boys needed to clean their plates. What’s more, you can buy a tub of Winslow Home’s cookies – unbaked! – to take home and pop in your own oven. That, coupled with the wide selection of sandwiches, soups and other prepared items, makes W.H. a great stop if you need carryout.

On our second visit, the food was equally scrumptious, but we did run into one hiccup. The special of the day was a light pairing of smoked trout and potato salad, and neither Kathy nor I was willing to pass that up for the sake of the broader menu. But we were a bit disappointed when the kids’ menu was ... grilled cheese and PB&J. On top of that, our initial attempt to order (the boys, as is their frequent custom, reversed their orders from the previous visit) was met with resistance by the woman at the counter. She was convinced that the grilled cheese fell under the lunch menu purview and, as such, couldn’t be made. I took the boys to meander through the housewares while Kathy worked through the misunderstanding. Soon enough, the boys had their desired sandwiches, and Kathy and I each had a perfect early summer salad. Our only regret was that the helping seemed too small. Kathy returned to the counter for a cup of cauliflower soup and to inquire about the mystery veggie aside our salad; her curiosity earned her a trip into the kitchen to learn it was shaved fennel.

Both boys enjoyed our visits. Investigating the old-fashioned toys kept them entertained while they waited for their meals, and the simple (if limited) kids’ fare meant they weren’t faced with anything too daunting. Hopefully, as Winslow’s Home finds its stride and seasonal offerings become available, the kids’ menu will continue to evolve as well. Still, with its outstanding bistro fare (and a baked goods selection we barely scratched), Winslow’s Home is a road trip well worth taking.