Tonic on the Taconic
By Randy Garbin
Otto Maier greets you with the sincerity of a fervent missionary. If you have the great pleasure to stop for a meal at the diner he calls O’s Eatery, you will likely spy him taking a few minutes from his duties in the kitchen to gauge his customers’ experiences. He looks people right in the eye, and you get the sense that he’ll know how you truly feel about his cooking no matter what you tell him.
This all bodes well for a diner that had seen its reputation decline in the past fifteen years. In January of 2005, Otto purchased the Parkway Diner from Dottie Drew, the daughter of its original owner, Burt Coons. Coons installed and operated not only this diner, but three others along the Taconic Parkway as well as the Historic Village Diner in nearby Red Hook. All five diners found great success for the same reason: When installed, they sat at or near the northernmost terminus of the Parkway then under construction.
Otto’s diner actually operated in another location, at least as Dottie tells it. Her father originally installed it in Catskill, New York in 1962 and moved it to the Parkway a few years later to escape a local property tax increase. For a time, Coons operated all four of the diners, monopolizing a 20-mile stretch from West Taghkanic to Chatham. By the 1980s, he had sold off all his diners and retired. In the 1990s, this colonial-style Fodero struggled as the Taconic Diner until its owners defaulted on their mortgage held by Dottie. According to the reluctant repossessor, they only had a few months left before they owned the whole thing.
No matter. Dottie took the diner back and put it on the market while keeping it open as the Parkway Diner. Then in late 2004, Otto came looking for his own opportunity. In his early 30s and already a seasoned veteran of the restaurant wars, the energetic, cheerful hulk of a guy seized an opportunity to put his own stamp on the industry. Having already worked as a chef in high-end Manhattan restaurants and then taking a turn in the kitchen of the Daily Planet Diner near Poughkeepsie, Otto took a chance on his own diner
Otto walked into a situation burdened with a number of disadvantages. First, the previous owners allowed the diner’s reputation to sink precipitously. Dottie made great strides cleaning up an ailing operation, but she hoped mainly to raise the diner’s value to a prospective buyer. Better management certainly helps, but giving a restaurant new life requires investments in equipment, marketing, and a real passion to make it all work. That challenge now fell on Otto’s lap.
Though O’s Eatery has the best visibility of any of the diners still on the Parkway, it doesn’t sit on a crossroad as do the Chief Martindale on Route 23, a few miles to the south, and the West Taghkanic on Route 82, another few miles further south. The diner sits on the northbound side, directly facing traffic as it comes around a gentle curve. Clearly, Otto’s challenge required him to offer a superlative product and establish a reputation that would spread in this sparsely populated region.
Given his new menu, the clean, comfortable environs, and the new energy he’s brought to the operation, early returns look positive. Otto’s new menu features a wide variety of items, as one would expect for a 100-plus seat diner. And like any true diner of this scale, it offers breakfast all day. Lunches range from healthy salads like Caesar and spinach to the diner classics like the classic specialty sandwiches that include clubs, Philly cheese steaks, and the popular deluxe fish sandwich that Otto serves on a hard roll with a marinated red onion and Cajun remoulade sauce. For the meat averse, O’s also offers a good vegetarian selection, which includes a grilled portabella mushroom sandwich and a veggie burger.
Dinners also get full attention at O’s, with a range of hot and cold plates available to satisfy just about any appetite, but Otto really shines with his list of specials. In any diner, we immediately look to this list to see what the kitchen can do. In Otto’s case, it does pretty well. We remember fondly the risotto cakes, the grilled chicken alpine, the pan-seared trout almondine, the homemade soups, the fresh-baked pies, and the bread pudding — all made from scratch.
Typically, a great restaurant will find its audience eventually. This remote region of the Hudson Valley offers some of the finest scenery in the northeast, but it doesn’t offer much population for even the best restaurants to thrive. The Parkway courses through this side of the valley, but the construction of the Thruway on the other side has left this road to the folks more appreciative of a slower and more scenic experience. In other words, the perfect patron for a quality classic diner like O’s Eatery.
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