Published March 22. 2012 4:00AM Updated April 02. 2012 10:42AM
For comfort food and vast selection, nothing beats a diner. But the number of diners around here has slowly declined, and in any case they don't fit quite everyone's notion of "dining."
Ah, but there's the Hideaway, Old Lyme's all-purpose solution to the question of "Where shall we eat?" It works for hungry rowers and sailors fresh off the water; for dinner before a show; for seniors lunching out; for people who do indeed want to dine.
Other shopping center restaurants come and go, but the Hideaway, which fans out from a corner entryway at the edge of scenic salt marshes, continues to draw crowds after many successful years.
Its menu includes several pages of salads, entrees and sandwiches, but I suspect many of the regulars order from the daily specials, a full page of seasonally adjusted dishes that most recently included corned beef and Irish stew.
That, and the all-day availability of most items, makes up the diner-like facet of the Hideaway's personality. Yet it is also a place of soft colors, trellis-like dividers and original framed art to admire and even buy. On a weekend evening, there may be live piano and on a weekday noon, a foursome playing bridge at a quiet corner table.
On a recent lunchtime visit, we ordered partly from the specials menu and partly, to be fair to hungry people who might read this review and want some of what we had, from the standards.
The quiche du jour, bacon and tomato, was a hearty helping, higher and puffier than most. We took some home to enjoy a second day. With it came a dish of fresh fruit, making lunch taste like brunch.
With it, we ordered a house salad and an appetizer of garlic cheese bread, which turned out to be wedges of crunchy baguette cheesed over just enough and perfectly toasted. The bread is served with a dish of marinara, and although that may be a takeoff on the breadsticks from a couple of famous chain restaurants, those establishments don't do their bread nearly as well.
The salad has the regulation ingredients, but fresh and crisp: mixed greens, tomato, red onion and shredded carrots, with a list of dressing choices.
For our other appetizer, we had baked Westbrook oysters, meaning on the half shell with a daub of sauce and diced bacon. Tasty, although the half-inch of oyster meat could almost get lost.
Also from the regular menu, we had a cucumber dill wild salmon salad, which is one of those creations no diner would have served till about 1990: chilled greens and other vegetables topped with piping hot meat or fish. The Hideaway takes it one step further by tenting the beautifully grilled salmon with a slaw of julienned cucumber in creamy dill sauce and then one more step after that: pommes frites - french fries also in julienne, so skinny and crisp you can forget to feel guilty about eating them.
One nice thing about the menu is the nod it gives to various ethnic cuisines. There's doubtless not an "American" menu anywhere anymore without Italian inspiration, and most have barbecued something and tortilla-ed something else. The Hideaway improves on that with the occasional German dish, some Asian selections, and plain old-fashioned items like calves liver and onions.
Really, a restaurant like this fits into everyone's dining out repertoire somewhere. It was nice to be back.