The tall man in the Johnny Cash getup—fringed leather coat, jeans, shirt, vest, all black—can’t be from around here. Drawing double takes from the crowd, he folds into a booth, removing a black cowboy hat. But when the waitress asks, “Do you need a few minutes?”—at Shady Glen, the waitresses always ask this, though the answer is usually “No, we knew what we wanted before we got in the car”—his quick order identifies him as another regular after all. He and his companions order a round of milkshakes, coleslaw, fries, and cheeseburgers, with extra cheese. No one needs a menu.
That extra cheese is important, because the cheeseburger is Shady Glen’s signature dish. When the thin burger patty hits the griddle, the line cooks, all young men sporting bow ties and soda-jerk caps, lay four slices of American cheese in a grid over the top, letting the corners drape down onto the griddle itself. There, they brown and crisp until, with a flick of the spatula, the cooks flip the corners up, making a finished “Bernice Original” look like Sally Field’s habit in The Flying Nun. Customers often order extra cheese on the side, which is what Johnny Cash, whose real name is Don, eats after downing a handful of vitamins.
The cheeseburger is named after Shady Glen’s co-founder, Bernice Rieg, who married John Rieg, a Connecticut dairy farmer, in 1936. Seeing a future in direct sales at a time when the town of Manchester was home to 54 other dairy farms, the Riegs opened their first store in 1948, with 47 stools and a menu of ice cream in the summer, burgers and sandwiches in the winter. Like other dairies at the time, they made the ice cream to offset falling milk prices, and built their restaurant in the classic dairy-store layout—booths and bar stools arranged around a gleaming central kitchen and soda fountain—that Shady Glen still has today.
Within four years, the Riegs gave up farming. They expanded the shop in 1954 and opened a second one on Manchester’s west side in 1965. And the staff—whose average tenure is so long that a six-year veteran is still considered a newbie—has spawned families of its own, with couples meeting and marrying and creating future generations of Shady Glen customers and line cooks.
The Riegs ran everything until the early ’90s, when they handed the job over to their cousin, William Hoch, who joined Shady Glen in 1954. He met his wife, Annette, when she was a waitress there; now his elder son, Bill Jr., helps run the company. And when the James Beard Foundation gave Shady Glen its “America’s Classics” award in 2012, Bill Sr. and Annette were there in black tie to accept.
It’s this quality and continuity that keep the customers lined up. Over at Don’s table, he and his wife, Judith, are finishing their sundaes. “My momma used to bring me here once a week when she came to Manchester to shop,” Judith says.
Now Judith and Don—no surprise, a Texas native—live down in Milford. But they still come here with Judith’s cousin Shirley and Shirley’s husband, Steve. And when they lived in Texas for a spell, “this was the first place we’d stop when we came to visit,” Don says.
He scoops up the last of his ice cream: “Have you tried the chocolate chip? It’s the best you’ll ever have.”
And he’s right. It’s made by pouring liquid chocolate into the ice-cream mix at just the right moment, so that the chocolate freezes into tiny bits that seem to melt on the tongue with a happy sigh. In the fall, there’s a pumpkin chocolate-chip variation, along with eggnog and mince ice creams and cranberry sherbet. In the spring, there’s an Easter special with coconut, cherries, and pineapple.
Across the room, five towheaded girls are spinning on their stools while a waitress in a green dress and white apron takes their order: crinkle fries, cheeseburgers, and the sweet coleslaw that always comes with a thin slice of tomato on top. Their moms are telling them to stop spinning, but they can’t help it. Not until the food comes.
Shady Glen Dairy Stores. 840 Middle Turnpike East, Manchester, CT; 860-649-4245. 360 West Middle Turnpike, Manchester, CT; 860-643-0511; facebook.com/pages/Shady-Glen/303607655927