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Shady Glen, Manchester CT

Went out of our way, traveling from Cape Cod to Sherman CT, to detour to Manchester CT, so we could see what all the excitement is about re Shady Glen (a restaurant/ice cream bar, beloved on this Board, that was recently given a big prize from the James Beard org.).

It is seriously adorable, w/ all the right retro touches in decor/uniforms, etc.

I ordered a cheeseburger platter w/ lettuce and tomato and cole slaw as my two sides (I saw french fries on other tables; and they looked like the frozen variety, which had me scratching my head before we even sat down). My husband got the a la carte cheeseburger.

The food arrived in timely fashion, brought by a cheerful young server. The lettuce on my plate, however, was beyond old--it was slimy and black around the edges, w/ the roughness of the very outside leaves of an over-the-hill head of Romaine. The tomatoes were cardboard (this is late July!), but I decided to triage and deal with the lettuce. I called the server over and said nicely that the lettuce wasn't edible. She said, mmm, that does look bad, I'll get you another piece. She picked the lettuce up and tossed it into a trash bin. She returned w/ a plate with a new piece that was in B- (as opposed to D-) shape and put it on the table, w/out an apology or offer to comp the platter mark-up.

On to the rest. The fried cheese was fun and sort of tasty. But I sort of expected more flavor, given all the build-up. The burger was skinny and gray and not very tasty. The cole slaw was generic. My husband got a slice of pickle w/ his cheeseburger. I assumed the absence of pickle on my plate was because I got the platter and had my two sides. But I learned from a blurb on the wall as we were leaving that mine should have had a pickle as well.

Ice cream for dessert--and that was good. A New England girl, I love grape nuts ice cream; and theirs was a good rendition. My husband enjoyed his chocolate peanut butter.

But I came away pretty clear that I'm not going back anytime soon (if I get hungry on that stretch of 84, I'll head for the Cromwell Diner or even Reins Deli).

Maybe it's one of those imprinting deals. There are lots of northern New England places from my childhood that I adore because I grew up with them; and they wouldn't necessarily have that same draw for newbies. Or maybe it was just an off night for the restaurant. Or for me.

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  1. I made my first trip there a couple of years ago and had a very similar experience. Loved the retro charm of the place, and the pumpkin ice cream, but the hot food was sorely lacking. The cheese gimmick on the burgers is fun, but I don't think it compensated for a lackluster patty and toppings. It's a fun place to visit, but if you want a great burger, you can do a whole lot better.

    1. I don't really understand why folks like this place, as evidenced here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/527983

      I think some people just grew up with Shady Glen, and to them, it's a good burger.

      2 Replies
      1. re: ratbuddy

        I grew up on Shady Glen, and it definitely not the best burger around, it's more about the nostalgia...and fried cheese.

        1. re: ratbuddy

          I agree. To me, it is a greasy cheap burger (akin to the cheapest burger you can find at say, Stop and Shop) topped with some excellent fried cheese. Not worth the trip.

        2. I've never understood the attraction. There's a part of me that thinks that central CT has always had a twinge of jealousy about not having any truly iconic places of its own the way the rest of the state did. No Pepe's. No Sally's. No Louis. So it took a unique, non-fast food establishment and built up a reputation about the place that its food didn't deserve. But the ice cream is good.

          6 Replies
          1. re: FoodieJim

            As a Manchester native, I can tell you it is all about the cheese. The burger is really secondary here, and just provides some "bottom" to the balance the amazing cheese. No one is claiming this as a burger on the realms of great burgers that stand on their own. IMHO, I wouldn't want an awesome patty here, as it's singular quality would be lost to the cheese.

            It is certainly a unique local treat, and many folks that I've introduced it to felt similarly, without having grown up with it. Nothing to do with "jealousy...not having any truly iconic places of its own"....Shady Glen has been famous as far back as the early 50's, before the all the "foodie" attention and before most people even thought about "iconic" food establishments. Even Jan and Michael Stern think this is pretty special:
            http://www.roadfood.com/Reviews/Overv...

            And, yes, the ice cream is REALLY good too......

            1. re: Science Chick

              Michael Stern also gave Mo's Midtown a great review. I don't put any stock in his opinions.

              1. re: ratbuddy

                The problem with the Stern's is that they get so joyfully overwhelmed by the nature and ambiance of family-run, non-chain, greasy spoons and hole-in-the-walls that they overplay the Americana and underplay the cuisine. When, if ever, was the last time you read an objective, critical review by the Sterns where they panned an establishment? Every single review is glowing and positive. It simply cannot be the case that every place they go to is great. Simply not possible. A positive review by the Roadfood team means only one thing to me---that is, that they ate there. When I start to see reviews that conclude by saying that they cannot recommend a place, that is when I will start to take their recommendations a bit more seriously.

                As for Shady Glen, this thread does nothing to change my opinion. People rise in support of this place, which is, above all else, "famous" for its cheeseburgers. Yet no one is willing to walk out onto the limb and proclaim the famous product to be anything better than average. The most fervent praise goes to the product's uniqueness and not to its quality. While boards such as this and Roadfood have piqued people's interest, twenty years ago, no one outside of the immediate area had ever heard of it.

                1. re: FoodieJim

                  Interesting take. I hadn't thought about it that way. I guess I just figured if the Sterns didn't like a place, they just didn't bother to write about it. I figured they only wrote about the places they dug. But I think you may be onto something. And I agree that the food isn't always their primary focus.

                  1. re: saturngrrl

                    My point with the Sterns was exactly to underscore Shady Glen as a little preserved corner of Americana, which is what I think the Sterns best report on. It wasn't to suggest that this was any kind of gourmet venue. But I think the discussion here is very worthwhile. If someone goes to Shady Glen expecting an amazing, thick juicy burger, then they *will* be disappointed. If they are interested in trying a local unique item, then they may enjoy the cheeseburger (or cheese-frankfurter!).

                    Also note: the method for eating a Shady Glen cheeseburger is as varied as approaches to eating oreos! Some people munch on some or all of the cheese separately, whereas others break it off and pile it onto the burger. I've always been in the latter camp, otherwise, I'd just get and order of cheese (which you can do as well!).

                  2. re: FoodieJim

                    The Sterns are optimists. They don't post bad reviews. If they don't like a place, they just don't write about it. If a place goes downhill, they remove it from their guide. In their memoir they write about some gruesome meals they have had on the road. I think that their approach stems from the fact that they primarily write a guidebook not a newspaper column or blog. A newspaper column has to get filled every week whether you ate well or not. A guidebook is limited by printing costs. Why waste the space on bad reviews?

                    I agree that they emphasize plebian tastes: hot dogs over bistros and traditional local fare over cuisines newer to the country. They will write about a Polynesian/Chinese place that has been around since the 1950's before they start lauding authentic food from Xi'an. I will also point out that they also wrote the Encyclopedia of Kitsch; no, I am not kidding. They like kitsch, and they don't hide it.

                    I like the optimism of the Sterns. But I will trust them to lead me to some good chili cheese fries or beignets rather than the finest Vietnamese takeout.

            2. I don't like burgers, so that isn't an issue to me.

              But Shady Glen makes a damn good ice cream soda. And there are too few places these days that know how to make an ice cream soda, let alone a good one.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Pipenta

                Nobody ever said Shady Glen was gourmet. It is a good basic burger served the old fashion way but with a special twist of cheese on top. Nothing more. Maybe if Friendly's stuck to their original menu they would still be in business at more of their locations. Too many people today think burgers should be something they are not. I think it is crazy to go to a fancy place like Plan B or Max Burger and pay through the nose for a burger. If I want to pay that much I will order steak. Anyway, I did not grow up on Shady Glen and I love it. I know many people who are from other areas who like it too. Maybe the OP's expectations were too high to begin with. JMHO, Jay

                1. re: JayCT

                  For what it's worth, I loved Friendly's Big Beef cheeseburger on toast all the way back to when I was a kiddo and you could order them rare. Growing up, there were not one but TWO Friendly's in my hometown--the "better" one was on the side of town where I live now, and is now Illiano's. :)

                  But somewhere along the way, Friendly's changed and I could no longer stomach it. Literally. The last few times I ate one, I just didn't feel good afterwards. And rare is out of the question now. So, no more Friendly's for me, nevermind that they are gone from my town. I do wish there was a place to get an "old-fashioned" burger along those lines...but don't you think you get what you pay for? Plan B prices aren't different from say Ruby Tuesdays. I wonder how much a Big Beef is now. No prices on their online menu. I guess they're free. Kidding, I get that prices must vary by store or region.

                  Plan B is more expensive than Shady Glen, but also a bigger, better burger. Heck, I make a mean burger myself at home. Sometimes it's just nice to go out for one.

                  1. re: kattyeyes

                    I'll chime in...I can't stand Friendly's. Plan B is on the to do list.