Cutchogue Diner has been a North Fork culinary constant for decades

09/22/2012 10:00 AM |

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Complete with a neon sign, the diner is an architectural throwback to a time long past.

Dr. Norm McCullough and his wife, Linda, stop in at The Cutchogue Diner on Main Road most weekdays at 2 p.m. They stop by so often, in fact, that waitress Debbie Stelzer said she gets “discombobulated” if the couple isn’t there to drink their respective tea and coffee while they read the paper, do a crossword puzzle and chat.

“We’re among the fairly regulars,” Dr. McCullough said. “I was more of a regular before I retired from being a general surgeon at ELIH. I would come by to grab a cup of coffee and a piece of toast on my way to the hospital.”

An old-fashioned chrome diner with a maroon color scheme, The Cutchogue Diner first opened as Glover’s restaurant in 1941. This year, John Touhey of Brooklyn reached his 25th anniversary owning the iconic North Fork eatery.

What sets the diner apart from other local eateries, aside from its shiny exterior, Ms. McCullough says, is the “good home cooking.”

Dr. and Ms. McCullough have been eating at the diner for so long they say they’ve outlived many of the longtime regulars. Others have moved away to Florida and other warmer locales.

Mary MacLeod, 25, of Laurel is part of a new generation of regulars. One day last week, she sat across from the McCulloughs, reading a book, eating a plate of fries and sipping a Coca-Cola.

“I come here all the time to sit and read,” Ms. MacLeod said. “I always have, since I’ve been able to drive.”

Perhaps most regular of all at The Cutchogue Diner is the staff.

Managing the restaurant is 37-year-old Fernando Rodriguez, who began his career there as a dishwasher.

“When I first started working here, I didn’t know a lot of English, but [Mr. Touhey] suggested I learn, so I ended up finishing the four-year ESL program at Suffolk Community College in three years,” said Mr. Rodriguez, who immigrated from Guatelama. “I then became a cook and when the position for manager opened up three years ago, he offered it to me and told me it would be a challenge. I took it because I like challenges. I’m a leader, not a follower. I like to keep myself busy and I try to run this place the best way possible.”

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Fancy food it’s not, but still Mary MacLeod was all smiles when waitress Debbie Stelzer delivered a plate of hot french fries last week.

He works closely alongside Mary Ferenc, 55, originally from Poland. The two have had each other’s backs in the kitchen for almost two decades. Ms. Ferenc moved to the U.S. in 1990 and began working at the diner a year later. Mr. Touhey sponsored her citizenship, she said.

Ms. Ferenc said she’s not even the longest tenured employee at the diner, having started after Ms. Stelzer.

“Most of us [from the ’90s], still work here,” Ms. Ferenc said. “A lot of our customers are the same and many times I know what a customer is going to have as soon as they open the door.”

Ms. Ferenc said she takes her devotion to customer satisfaction seriously and considers it a reason customers keep coming back.

“Sometimes people come in and ask for the usual because they know that I should know how they like it,” she said. “For example, many people get scrambled eggs, but they’ll see me and say, ‘You know how I like it,’ because some like them soft and others like them well-done. If someone asks what we have for veggies and it’s peas and carrots, but they don’t like peas, I’ll pick out the peas and give them carrots. I separate them because I like the customers and that’s why the customers like me.”

Mr. Rodriguez said the consistency of meals, thanks to Ms. Ferenc’s exacting attention to detail, is one of the things that make the diner a special place.

“We’re also very flexible and tailor our meals based on what our customers want,” he said. “If someone orders pancakes, but just wants one pancake instead of a stack, we can do that. We’re here to serve people and please them as much as we can.”

It’s the kind of place that brings Westhampton residents Robert Dell and Walter Lapple to the North Fork just about every Friday for lunch.

“We used to go to different places on Fridays,” Mr. Dell said. “But this is our normal Friday luncheon spot now.”

gvolpe@timesreview.com

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