There is a portal to the past on North Reynolds Road. Everyone knows its name. Everyone who wants to touch the true Toledo spirit goes there. Everyone who, perhaps weary of ethnic dining, nouvelle cuisine, or the latest culinary hotspot and all its trappings, is simply looking for a predictable, quick, and tasty meal, thinks of it when it's time for a gustatory breather.
IT is Schmucker's, a landmark - no, an institution and one of the last of its kind - in that its endurance and consistency claims a special place in Toledo's collective memory. It may be the only diner that invites customers to pray before digging in.
Family-run since 1948, Schmucker's conjures the tastes and aromas of a mythical Home Kitchen much as Norman Rockwell did at his easel. The New England artist served up slices of Americana that tempted the psyche; Schmucker's delivers it with a generous slice of pie.
Pie is such a specialty inside the cozy cottage that many people plan meals around dessert. There are more than a dozen standards with fruit, cream, and custard fillings inside predictably light crusts. And there are weekly specials with unusual fillings such as the chocolate banana we tried or candy-bar re-creations. So popular are the pies, in fact, that Schmucker's now markets whole pies at selected grocery stores and its own pie show on Angola Road.
But somehow, pie tastes more authentic inside the restaurant itself, a single, small room with a handful of tables, a row of booths, and a long counter. Plus, your server will warm it for you and drop a big scoop of ice cream on it, if you ask nicely.
D cor is functional - ivory tile on floors and walls, which are hung with clippings and pictures and an assortment of Schmucker's T-shirts created in honor of the restaurant's half-century four years ago. A few wire racks near the door offer inspirational reading and cooking material for sale.
A swarm of waitresses - I've never seen a waiter here - run between the counter and seating. Service is down-to-earth, friendly, usually pretty fast. Regulars chat across the room and banter with the servers. At busy moments, diners may share a table with people they didn't know before, the better to be served more quickly. It's hard to be a stranger here.
Behind the counter, servers and the lone grill cook maintain a complicated choreography of food service, the cook watching hamburgers, steaks, bacon, sausage, and eggs sizzle, sandwiches brown, refreshing a mound of home fries, and tending wells of hot fat where chicken parts and French fries crisp up.
Specials - meatloaf, roast turkey with dressing, mashed potatoes and the like - are held in an adjacent steam table. The steam from a bun warmer wafts upward as servers prepare sandwiches and salads.
Tastes are as predictable here as the entire setting predicts. Soups may start with canned base but the additions make them appealing. Servings are ample but not over-large. Specials are probably better early in the day. We made the mistake of ordering meatloaf one early evening and were disappointed in the gray lump of beef and onions masked by a drab bouillon-flavored gravy. Macaroni and cheese is worth its great reputation, however; it's creamy and tangy.
Small wonder Schmucker's continues to pull in loyal customers and newcomers. Its parking lot is usually filled with cars and trucks from morning to night Monday-Saturday.
With the ongoing demise of family-owned originals like it, Schmucker's offers all diners common ground. It stands out as a bastion of road food one doesn't have to travel far to enjoy.
Contact Bill of Fare by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.