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Restaurant review: Loving the lunches at The Shack

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published September 12. 2013 4:00AM

I am a creature of rigidly patterned behavior and closely observed ritual.

A nut, in other words.

In that spirit, then - rightly or wrongly - I have for 15 years associated the conveniently located Waterford edition of The Shack restaurants with breakfast. Countless fine breakfasts have been enjoyed in this location.

Why, then, had it never occurred to me to explore their lunch/dinner menu, as well?

I have no good answer for that.

However, an acquaintance recently commented in an aside that he'd just been to The Shack for lunch - and the innocent comment rang like a bell of epiphany in my cobwebbed brain.

Since then, I've eaten lunch at the Waterford Shack 617 times.

I like it.

Let me tell you more.

If you've never been in the Waterford Shack, it's a charming place that could, in an alternate reality, be where Andy Taylor and Barney Fife met Thelma Lou and Helen for lunch every day. There's a decidedly small town vibe and friendliness to it (though, if you happen to see Howard Sprague there, remind him he owes me $5 from a bet we had on the outcome of the Waterford/Mayberry football game).

It's a big, square room with an ice cream counter and the kitchen area on the left as you walk in. Booths run around the perimeter, and in the center is a U-shaped dining bar. Decor is thrift-store chic, with framed posters and photographs, antique toys and old business signs and, hanging from the ceiling, archaic fishing and farm implements.

The staff, for the most part, is comprised of veterans - folks who seem to enjoy working in the Shack family as much as us civilians like being there.

OK, as for lunch/dinner:

The menu has a nice selection of appetizers, sandwiches and burgers, side orders - and a particularly intriguing "Home Town Meals" section of heartier fare that includes such things as a year-round Thanksgiving turkey platter, liver and onions, meatloaf, and fried scallops.

As an e'er-expanding Large Person, I decided to direct my initial campaign towards the Home Town Meals choices. First up? Chopped Beef Steak ($9.99), which was a generous disc of ground chuck steak drenched in brown gravy. It was juicy, with a slightly crusty, peppery exterior, and the savory gravy was a delight. Typically, the dish comes with mashed potatoes and vegetables; I asked for a double order of fries. If you haven't learned that brown gravy on fries is a celestial commodity, well, it's time you figured it out.

Another Home Towner I enjoyed was the Twin Chicken Dinner ($9.49), pairing two pounded boneless breasts with a scoop of fluffy rice pilaf and a side of choice. The chicken was fork-tender, with a subtle marinade that had a slight citrus edge - or so it seemed. Just a very nice flavor; the rice was a nice counterpoint, and my steamed broccoli florets, drizzled with melted butter, were cooked with pinpoint precision.

I also tried a crock of Shack beef chili ($6.99), which comes with shredded cheese, scallions and a hunk of moist cornbread. I opted out of the scallions, and my bowl arrived with a bubbling lava flow of cheddar on the surface. Tunnel through the cheese, and you find a complex mixture of components and textures. There's plenty of beef and beans, with a slightly sweet tomato sauce presence and a spice - basil, maybe? - that gives the overall flavor a sort of Italian/marinara quality. As a southerner, I found this unusual - but that doesn't mean it wasn't damned good.

The polymath sandwich possibilities were fun to speculate on, too. In addition to a "Sandwich Board," The Shack has a selection of melts, wraps, burgers and specialty creations.

On one occasion, on the recommendation of my thoughtful waitress, I sampled the chicken salad melt ($8.99 with choice of a side). The core salad was very good, with chunks of breast meat and not too much mayo to goop it up. The strips of bacon were crisp and overflowed the requested rye. If there was a problem, it's that the sandwich must balance several delicate flavors; the cheese almost overwhelmed the chicken salad, but can one complain about too many riches? I thought not ...

Oh. While a bountiful feast at The Shack often precludes the idea of dessert, they always have fresh baked pies, and the cement mixer-thick milkshakes ($4.95) are pretty spectacular. Order one with two scoops of chocolate and one of coffee ice cream and tell me it ain't greatness.

r.koster@theday.com

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The Shack

131 Boston Post Road, Waterford
(860) 442-6660, shackrestaurants.com

Cuisine: Timeless American diner/comfort food

Atmosphere: Homespun decor as though selected from an old family garage

Service: Quick, efficient, familiar

Hours: 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 6 a.m.-1 p.m. Sun.

Reservations: Nope; waiting line

Credit cards: All majors

Handicap access: Two doors to get into the restaurant

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