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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ruben, I’ve Been Thinking

From the Vault Dept.: By the time I moved to Schenectady in 1980, Ruby’s Diner already was a fixture. Here’s a piece I wrote about it in 1987. With Albany’s Miss Albany also gone, we’re completely bereft of the classic railroad-car emporia.

A RAILROAD CAR moved down Erie Boulevard, traveling over pavement. It was 1936. Seventeen years before, this street had been a canal. The variety of vehicular traffic was remarkable.

Ruby's Diner. Polaroid photo
by Franny Wentzel
In this case, the car was split lengthwise and down the middle, stretched, patched and settled on a foundation in which a kitchen was constructed. Within ten years it was advertised as the “De Luxe Dining Car of the Mohawk Valley.”

It’s still pretty de luxe, in a homey sort of way. But to diner freaks, Ruby’s Silver Diner is one of the few in the Northeast that maintains the atmosphere of a good old-fashioned center-of-town eatery.

The book Diners of the Northeast celebrated it among some pretty exclusive company, the requirements being good food, good atmosphere and the railroad-car look. While many of them were built to look like railroad cars, this one actually was purchased from the Delaware & Hudson line – for $100.

Ruben Michelson took over the business in 1975, after 16 years of running a successful luncheonette in the now-demolished Ellis Building on the same street and 14 years before that as the deli manager at the now-defunct Max’s food market.

The menu mixes standard diner fare with homemade specials. As an extra touch of customizing, Michelson altered the spelling of the popular corned-beef-and-sauerkraut sandwich to conform with his own first name.

And Ruby himself is at the counter working the busy breakfasts and lunches in a restaurant that, to any downtown worker or transient or resident, adds so much to Schenectady’s personality.

There’s an old-friends atmosphere about the place: if you’re a stranger you’ll quickly make a half-dozen friends in the course of a meal. “I got some good soup,” Ruby will say. “Try my soup.” And a huge bowl of split-pea will materialize, served in the institutional china that an earthquake can’t tip.

The soup itself is thick but not glutinous, smooth but without the suspicious smoothness of the tinned stuff. Tasty hunks of ham are floating within.

Meat loaf is a special today – order a sandwich and you get two huge slabs of well-seasoned beef in a classic mixture. If you don’t want the deli mustard that’s on the counter he’ll offer a jar of Plochmann’s.

Order some potato salad to go with it: Ruby’s famous for this mixture. Diners of the Northeast singled it out as “some of the best ... we’ve ever had on the road,” and it has won praise from other professionals in the business, as Ruby explains:

“A fellow who works for Amtrak asked me to make a platter of potato salad for a party he was having over in Utica. It turns out that his brother, who runs a restaurant out there, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park – and he said it was the best potato salad he’d ever eaten.” Ruby beams: not a trace of modesty in his smile. He’s the first one to tell you how good his food is, and he’s always right.

There’s pastrami to try, an outstanding preparation, great in a sandwich, terrific just on the plate. He cooks turkey breasts to give you the real thing, fresh.

And there’s always dessert, the homemade pies and puddings without which no diner could survive. “Try the bread pudding,” he’ll insist, and there it is: not too sweet but certainly delicious, topped with a scoop of whipped cream.

Such is the atmosphere at Ruby’s that it also was the scene, seven years ago, of a TV ad for a truck-driver’s training school. You won’t see many big rigs parked out front in the course of a day – it caters more to the GE crowd that strolls up the boulevard every workday at noon – but it’s nice to know that Ruby’s nevertheless has that fabled seal of approval.

Lunch for two, with tax, tip and soda, was $8.

RUBY’S SILVER DINER, Erie Boulevard, Schenectady, 382-9741. Counter and booth service, light catering. Open 5:30 AM-6 PM Monday-Friday, 6-3 Saturday, 6-2 Sunday. Breakfast specials until 11:30. No credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 20 August 1987

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