Rosebud DinerSomerville, MAPub/Cafe
2 Star Pub/Cafe (our ratings)
The charm didn’t make up for the “directionless” food
To some people, it’s beautifully kitsch. The Rosebud Diner is an original Worcester dining car, built to fit onto a train, but instead bought and opened in Somerville in 1941. Although it’s undeniably homey, it’s also homely. Your first impression walking in is the stickers on the door: “booths reserved for parties of two”, “please turn off your cell phone”, “no outside food allowed”, “no smoking”, “we check liquor IDs”, and “warning, camera on premesis”. These aren’t bad rules to have, but to post them all on the door is too hick and tasteless for me. I prefer the fantasy that a cute diner in the middle of the nowhere, out in the midwest, is all homemade pie and honey.
You’ll get that too at the Rosebud Diner. The manager, Helen DeFrancisco, calls customers “sweetie” and “darling”, and when a new customer walks in, seeing the place empty, and thoughtlessly saying, “Oh wow, I guess we won’t have to wait long to service,” she replies brightly, “No, that’s good! Now you’ve got the whole place to party with.” When I accidentally write down her name wrong and imply that she’s married to the owner, Bill Nichols, Helen jokes, “What, you think I’ve got a death wish?”
This is completely charming! But then we’re back to Hicksville, when Helen holds up the newspaper and announces to the room, “Who wants to know what their horoscope is today?” Then a few seconds later she tells her coworker that if you have an ear ache, an old home remedy is to put some hot oil on a cotton ball and stick it into your ear. (You should never put anything into your ear.)
Before I can process this, we switch back to completely charming, as Bill, the owner, plays up the kitsch element, bringing out photographs, newspaper articles, and menus from as far back as 70 years ago. Bill’s father and Helen’s mother both worked here, and now Helen’s daughter is on board as well, making the place multigenerational. It’s on the national register of historic places. Bill’s father bought the dining car in 1958 from the original owners. There are only a few other diners in New England, and only one comes readily to my mind, a place in Waltham on Main Street.
Thus, I’m conflicted. I want so much to like this place, with the waitstaff who clearly befriend all their patrons, the original 1941 counter and tile with a row of barstools and the Valentine’s Day decorations that are still up a couple of weeks later. They play 105.7 WROR, the oldies radio station, which is legal since it’s a small place (though they can seat 50 people somehow). But there’s also a tasteless black and white photo of The Three Stooges on the bar. This place definitely has character, but is it good character? Is this place kitsch or just a dump?
I decide that the food will be the tie-breaker. I’ve yet to find the way to politely sit and sample a restaurant’s food without the owner staring at me. So I sample several dishes while chatting with Helen and Bill. I’m surprised to learn that everything here is baked fresh, and it’s all eat-in. They have no delivery or catering business.
The salad is natural, with big delicious chunks of tomato that you could eat with your hands, and grilled chicken. It’s primal, simple, and fulfilling, and didn’t need any dressing. (I only discovered the balsamic vinegrette at the bottom of the dish later.) They are proud of their onion rings, which are not as greasy as most, with chunks that are thick and not stringy. But like all such dishes, it’s still more crust of fried oil than onion, and thus not for me. But then, I’ve never really enjoyed onion rings anywhere, so it’s hardly the fault of the Rosebud Diner.
However, I am a fan of french toast, and I’m sorry to say that the variant at the Rosebud Diner is worse than ordinary. Lacking sugar or cinnamon, it’s slightly too eggy, giving it a off-taste, and the bread is plain. I liked the steak fries, which are so free of grease that I actually asked if they were baked, but they are plain, with no spice. Helen tells me that many restaurants don’t clean their fryolaters regularly, which may explain why they lack that oily feel.
I also sampled a veggie fritatta that comes with Hollandaise sauce which they make themselves. I find the crust too dry, but the inside very wet, basically egg with too few vegetables, and no spices that I can taste. That much egg is overwhelming and I did not find it interesting and full of diced up surprises as it should be. The homemade Portuguese soup was the opposite. It was warm and complex with a lots of components to keep you busy, although its chunks of meat were a little too small to chew and savor.
My favorite was their Boston cream pie, which was perfect. The chocolate was not too rich and blended well with the cream and moist cake, with no one flavor overwhelming the others.
Overall, the menu gave me the same impression as the decor. There is a lot of love in this place, but the charm sometimes misfires and I just don’t sense the complex and masterful strokes of a restaurant with a crafted theme. Instead the food seems “directionless”. They should know that you have to dice the vegetables bigger in the frittata, so you can tell they’re there. They should add some panache to their french toast, more vanilla, and use extra-thick slices of bread. So the place, both the food and the atmosphere, seem thrown together in a way that’s completely well meant and with great hospitality, yet just doesn’t compete with the hundreds of restaurants within a 20-minute walk of Davis Square, unless you have a special nostalgia for diners.
By the way, the Rosebud Diner also has a back area I never knew existed, the Rosebud Bar. It is a huge bar and roomy dining area, with videogames, Internet jukebox, pool tables, and a live music stage. Since they have a separate kitchen, a different menu, and a different entrance, it is basically a second operation. So I took photographs but otherwise it did not impact this review. It looked like a presentable but ordinary bar, not classy enough to bring in young college graduates, but notable for its live music Wednesday to Sunday and karaoke on Tuesdays.
381 Summer Street, Somerville, MA