Akron diner feeds the spirit…

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Friday, April 17, 1992

Akron diner feeds the spirit – and the appetite By Fredda Rosen

I live in New york, where the restaurants sport four stars, but I’d swap a steak au poivre and a mess of Belon oysters to visit my folks in Akron – and eat at Fred’s Diner. I cannot live on salmon tartare alone, and my soul withers in boites where waiters are actors and the décor is based on metal and stone. I need a comfy booth, macaroni and cheese and waitresses who know how to smile. I need Fred’s.

My antidote to New York’s excesses is a newcomer to Akron; Fred Spencer opened his diner in a little white house on Home Ave. in the North Hill section about three years ago. But the restaurant is a newcomer in the old style; Fred’s feeds both body and soul.

I knew the first time I walked through the door that Fred’s could cure my fresh-saffron-pasta-with-goat-cheese-blues. I was greeted by the smell of grilling bacon and Spencer himself, wearing an apron and a how-ya-doin’ grin. The dining room, with its flowered wallpaper and lace curtains, beckoned like a bowl of hot soup on a cold winter night.

The places was filled with lawyers, cops, retirees, truck drivers and people on break from the office. The crowds come in Mercedes, worn-out pick-ups and sensible sedans to chow down on burgers the size of small meatloaves and homemade soups. They’re here to settle in and relax; they’re here to see Spencer and the waitresses.

Spencer has assembled a four-some of servers who care for his customers like doting moms. They suit up in black shorts and golf shirts (turquoise, with “Fred’s Diner” in place of the alligator), and croon and cajole, tease and soothe as they take and deliver orders.

“Watch that butter on your toast. Cholesterol!”

“Hey, look at you! What a great shirt.”

One of the women is always circling the dining room, carrying a pot of regular and a pot of decaf. “Coffee? C’mon, have some more. Relax.”

My cup has never been empty at Fred’s, and the plates arrive overflowing. Food is heaped, mounded or piled; Spencer eschews delicacy. “I got big guys who eat big food,” he said.

I may not qualify, but I am happy to leave dainty morsels of fish and decorative baby vegetables back home in New York. And you won’t find a smidgen left from the Paul Bunyon-sized hot turkey sandwich that aSpencer feeds me. This food is too good to take home to the dog.

Daily specials include pork chops and meatloaf and Friday’s fried shrimp. But I am happiest on Thursday when Spencer makes macaroni and cheese. Using loving hands and sharp cheddar, he produces a creamy pasta casserole with a crusty brown lid.

At lunch time, Spencer is at the grill, flipping and patting fat burgers. Two helpers construct oversized sandwiches with monikers like “Yo Meatball” (meatballs and melted provolone) and “Here’s Your Beef” (roasted top round with horseradish.)

Unlike many places in town, Fred’s doesn’t stop serving breakfast at 11:00. From his 6 a.m. opening until he locks up at 2:30 p.m., Spencer scrambles eggs and fries bacon and crowds his griddle with pancakes and thick slices of French toast.

That means I’m never too late for home fries. I thought there wasn’t a restaurant west of the Hudson that could make home-fried potatoes the way they do in New York, but I’m sending the cook from my neighborhood coffee shop to apprentice at Fred’s. Spencer takes chunks of potatoes, studs them with onions and lots of pepper and fries the mixture to a crackling turn. He is a born short-order chef.

He knew it at an early age, too. Some kids want to be firemen and others see themselves as cops or doctors, but Spencer was a kid who wanted to own a restaurant. When he was 11, he opened a hot-dog stand in his back yard. To lure the lunch trade, he draped a placard proclaiming “Eat at Fred’s” over the stop sign on the corner.

“Business was great,” Spencer recalled. “Until I got busted. The cops said there was some kind of ordinance.”

Today, a picture of a long-legged boy and a stop sign hangs over the counter at Fred’s. “This place is a dream come true,” Spencer said.

I agree. Back home in New York, I leave plates of sashimi unfinished and pick at my pan-roasted quail. Perhaps Spencer would consider a franchise. I have my dreams, too.

Rosen is a free-lance writer from New York City who is originally from Akron.