Food Notes: Akron’s Fred’s Diner proves simplicity key, celebrates 25 years; Lebanese Food Fair kicks off Friday; Stark gets a Bistro
By Katie Byard
Beacon Journal staff writer
Long before the bacon craze, Fred Spencer embraced pork in a big way.
Order bacon with your breakfast at Fred’s Diner in Akron, and you get seven slices — yes, seven.
That’s “half a pound; I order the thick cut,” notes Spencer. “The most amount of anything I sell is bacon … People know us for breakfast.”
It’s been that way for a quarter of a century — Fred’s Diner celebrated 25 years earlier this month.
Nothing much changes at Fred’s, a cozy 50-seat diner that feels older than its mid-20s, where folks line up for breakfast and lunch.
“It’s a dump,” Fred Spencer says, chuckling, describing the white concrete block building at 930 Home Ave., tucked amid industrial properties.
The place — open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week — is a clean, cheery dump, if there ever was one. And Spencer loves it, loves making no-frills chow served by friendly waitresses, many of whom have worked there for years.
The stick-to-the-basics approach works; the place gets good reviews on websites and food blogs, and the frequent lines speak for themselves.
“I’ve never really got on the bandwagon of ‘newer food,’ ” Spencer said. “It took me forever to get chicken fingers. I’ve wanted to keep it like a diner. It’s a working-man thing. Big portions, fast in and out … I don’t get into sandwich wraps, quesadillas, the breakfast sandwich. I’ve tried to stay true to what a diner really was.”
He does get into homemade creamed chipped beef each Veterans Day. For about 20 years, Spencer has been giving away the dish on the holiday to veterans to honor them for their service. A longtime staple of military mess halls, it is affectionately known as SOS for s— on a shingle. Spencer does make the cream sauce, but the dried chipped beef is from a can — just as the famous military food was.
Last Saturday, three of Spencer’s children were working at the place: Jenna, 26, Max, 24, and Donald, 19. Spencer’s wife, Debbie, a real estate agent with Keller Williams, stopped to check in on her family. Their daughter Natalie has her own food business — a home bakery operation called Natty Cakes.
Spencer was busy cooking and greeting customers. He keeps his conversations short, as he’s the main cook.
This is his destiny: He shows a visitor a framed photo of himself at age 11 or 12 standing in front of an old shed in his Cuyahoga Falls backyard. He put up a sign that said “Fred’s Diner.”
Soon, the police came around and told him he couldn’t sell hot dogs and chips from the shed. “Big Brother shut me down,” he says with a laugh.
At Fred’s Diner, Spencer did do a bit of remodeling about 15 years ago. He installed new stools — with seats covered with turquoise vinyl — at the orange-topped lunch counter.
“I tried to give it that Ho-Jo look,” Spencer said, referring to the iconic colors of the Howard Johnson motel and restaurant chain.
Longtime waitress Franny Thoricht says: “We call it food fast, not fast food.”
Following graduation from Falls High in 1977, Spencer honed his cooking craft and his restaurant philosophy working at many local spots — including the old Iacomini’s in Akron, the old Billy’s in Akron and Altieri’s Pizza in Stow. He worked on a culinary degree at the University of Akron, but didn’t graduate. In 1989, he got his break when he began leasing the small building on Home Avenue. Eventually Spencer, who now lives in Tallmadge, bought the place.
Spencer’s diner truth includes a basic breakfast of two eggs, a heaping portion of bacon and home fries, toast and jelly for $6.99. You can sub sausage or ham for the bacon. “One Big Pancake” will run you $2.29, and that’s probably all you will want — the cake fills a plate. Bottomless cups of coffee are $1. Orange juice comes in a bottle.
Sandwiches include Yo Meatball, Kielbasa Kid and Hillbilly Philly — fried bologna any way you like it. Customers call in to reserve “Fred’s Famous Chicken Dumpling Soup.” Daily specials also are popular, especially the homemade meatloaf, Thursday’s special.
Service is quick. The restaurant’s slogan — Spencer thinks a waitress came up with it — is emblazoned on the wait staff’s T-shirts: “Eat, Pay, Get Out.”
That’s important at a restaurant that doesn’t serve booze, relying entirely on its food sales: “In order to be able to survive, you have to be able to turn it over quickly,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean those who linger aren’t welcome. “Ask them if they want to order lunch,” Spencer has remarked to a waitress about a customer who had stayed long after eating breakfast.
Call 330-535-3733 or go to http://fredsdiner.net.
Food and wine fun
August brings more food and wine festivals …
• The Lebanese Food Fair at Our Lady of the Cedars Church, 507 S. Cleveland-Massillon Road, Fairlawn, will run from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday.
Church members have spent weeks making food, including kibbe (bulgur wheat and ground meat patties), stuffed grape leaves, cucumber salad, fatoush salad (bread and vegetables), spinach pie and baklava.
Festival-goers can sit in the banquet hall or a new outdoor patio (assuming the weather cooperates). Also new this year will be a petting zoo from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday. For information, call the church at 330-666-3598.
• Also this Friday and Saturday, the two-day outdoor Vintage Ohio celebrates 20 years, running from 1 to 10 p.m. each day. The event — which focuses on regional wines — is at Lake Metroparks Farmpark, 8800 Euclid-Chardon Road in Kirtland, east of Cleveland. Adult single-day tickets are $30 in advance or $35 at the gate. Adult two-day tickets are $45 at the gate. Designated drivers are $12; kids ages 4 to 17 are $3; ages 3 and under free. Advance tickets are available at Giant Eagle stores, at 1-800-227-6972 or http://visitvintageohio.com through Thursday. The event includes food, jazz, reggae and oldies music, cooking demonstrations and more. Friday night features fireworks. The Ohio Wine Producers Association organizes the event.
• Looking ahead, the seventh National Hamburger Festival returns to Lock 3 Park in downtown Akron from noon to 11 p.m. Aug. 9 and noon to 7 p.m. Aug. 10. Tickets are $5 at the gate, free for children ages 8 and under. Food tickets are an additional $1. A portion of the proceeds goes to Akron Children’s Hospital. Go to http://hamburgerfestival.com.
Area chefs are teaming up for the annual Six Courses for a Cure dinner. This year’s event is Aug. 8 at the Sheraton Akron/Cuyahoga Falls to raise money for the Meredith A. Cowden Foundation.
This is the fifth year for the dinner to raise money for research into graft-versus-host disease, a complication of bone marrow transplants used to treat leukemia patients.
Chefs are Aaron Hervey, Crave, Akron; Aaron Ruggles, Bistro on Main, Kent; Josh Schory, Lucca, Canton; John Selick, University Hospitals, Cleveland; Bill Thurman, Beau’s on the River, Cuyahoga Falls; and Roger Thomas, coordinating chef.
Each course will be paired with wines. The evening begins at 6 p.m. with a cocktail reception and silent auction. Tickets start at $150 for the black tie optional event. The Sheraton Suites is at 1989 Front St. Visit www.sixcoursesforacure.com or www.cowdenfoundation.org.
Urban farmers market
The Young Urban Farmers Market continues from 10 a.m. to noon Friday at Miller Avenue United Church of Christ, 1095 Edison Ave., in the Summit Lake area of Akron, and 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at Vernon Odom Boulevard and Fern Street, across from the Vernon Odom Branch Library in West Akron. The market will continue at those locations from 10 a.m. to noon Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 16. For information, call Let’s Grow Akron, 330-745-9700.
Food Truck Friday
Food Truck Friday continues outside the new offices of the nonprofit Child Guidance & Family Solutions at 18 N. Forge St. in downtown Akron. Trucks gather from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every Friday through Sept. 12 in the agency’s lot facing East Market, at the corner of North Forge. A portion of the vendors’ proceeds go the agency, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary of providing counseling to children and families. Check the agency’s Facebook page to see which trucks will roll up.
Bistro of Oakwood
The owners of the Bistro of Green have opened a second location in Plain Township. It’s called the Bistro of Oakwood — a reference to the shopping plaza in which the eatery is located. For obvious reasons, the owners didn’t go with putting “plain” in the name.
The menu is the same as the Green locale, featuring salads, steak, seafood, chicken and pasta. The eateries offer rack of lamb and duck breast as well as gluten-free options.
Janyce Gillian, who previously worked at the Bistro of Green, said owners Roger Stewart and Russ Chambers oversaw an extensive remodeling of the former Pileggi’s restaurant. “We went down to the four walls. All new plumbing. All new kitchen.”
She helped design the decor, choosing warm colors — gold, brown, tan — as she did at the Green eatery.
The Bistro of Oakwood features a larger lounge than its sister locale. It is not open for lunch. It is in the Oakwood plaza at the corner of Easton Street Northeast and Middlebranch Road.
For hours and information, call 330-915-8173 or go to http://thebistroofoakwood.com.
Learn the basics of canning with boiling water and a pressure cooker from 10 a.m. to noon Aug. 9. Deadline for registering for the workshop, organized by the Portage County Gardeners, is Friday. Call 330-673-0577.
Cost is $25; participants receive a canning book. Instructors will demonstrate methods; participants can taste various canned items.
The workshop will be at the garden club’s facility at 5154 S. Prospect St. in Rootstown Township. Also Aug. 9, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the garden club will sponsor a garage sale on the grounds.
Send local food news to Katie Byard at 330-996-3781 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can become a fan on Facebook www.facebook.com/KatieByardABJ.