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Silver Diner – Follow that Farmer!

Special Feature to the Washington Examiner by Jordan Wright – Sunday August 1st, 2010

Nothing’s more exciting to me than a food quest.  I will go anywhere foraging leads me.  I’ve rambled down back roads to find a beekeeper who sells honey off her front porch and waded through fields of strawberries, stretching out as far as the eye can see, to gather the ripe fruit for homemade strawberry jam.  I’ve tromped over woodlands rife with snakes and poison ivy (dicey at best) to find the edible shoots of the thorny greenbrier vine and collect the elusive morel.  I follow the food wherever it leads me and farmers are my most powerful inspiration.  So when I heard that the well-known family restaurant, Silver Diner, was serving local and sustainable food, my ears pricked up.  I may have even cocked my head like a bird upon hearing the UPS truck thunder down the road, but initially I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the incongruity.

The scene at the Silver Diner - photo by Jordan Wright

The scene at the Silver Diner - photo by Jordan Wright

Let’s see… a 1950’s-style diner that is also a healthful eatery with fresh fruits and vegetables and grass-fed hormone free beef.  Visions of “The Fonz” and “American Graffiti” coupled with burgers n’ fries kept edging forward.  I only knew the iconic diner as a fast-food greasy spoon with neon-lighting, formica-topped counters, gut-busting platters and antique car rallies in the parking lots.

I ignored the news for a few weeks longer while a friend in the local small farm movement continued to update me with newer and ever more surprising revelations.  “There are on-site weekend farmers markets, money-off coupons to restaurant patrons to redeem at the farm stands, and a brand new menu loaded with fresh and local fruits, whole grains, veggies and meats,” she crowed.  My curiosity piqued, but first I dug out my Holmesian magnifying glass which looks a bit like a like a cell phone because it is…and placed a call to HQ in Rockville, MD to verify her findings.

When I reached Ype Von Hengst, the Dutch chef and co-owner, I heard a-man-on-a-mission, “Families with kids want to go to places with better food options.  So we’ve gone local and healthful,” he said.  “I have a moral obligation to give it to the kids.“  Music to my ears…

Farmers markets are found outside some of the Silver Diners on Sundays - photo by Jordan Wright

Farmers markets are found outside some of the Silver Diners on Sundays - photo by Jordan Wright

He spoke of sourcing from local farmers and providing an outlet for them to bring their product directly to his customers.  “When they eat with us they receive coupons to redeem outside at the farm stands and if they have any produce left over at the end of the day we buy it from them and use it in the restaurant.”  “We have six parking lot markets going now, with plans for next summer’s expansion.”

Von Hengst, who is running his second Marine Corps marathon this October, is proud of the changes to Silver Diner and is constantly searching for new sources.  “It’s a journey for us.  We haven’t gotten there yet, but we have begun by rethinking our whole approach to buying and sourcing locally as much as possible.”  It makes them a gleaming example to others in the family-friendly food business – low prices coupled with fresh healthful food from area farms. They deserve a lot of credit.

“Our local produce comes to us the day after it has been picked off the vine and our milk from the Kreider family farm in Manheim, PA, goes from the cow to our milkshakes in as little as two days,” he continued.  Here at last a paradigm shift in the way we picture the American diner.

My husband was up for a visit.  He loves this place, with its home-style food, retro vibe and cute Sebring tabletop jukeboxes.  We were in high warble during our drive to the Clarendon location to confirm the rumors. (There are seven Silver Diner outposts in the Metro DC/VA/MD area and eleven others around the Mid-Atlantic, but this one was the closest for us.)  We had no idea what to expect and my husband was afraid they had done away with his favorite sausage, eggs and biscuits, or worse, jacked up the prices.  Instead we found the same gentle prices and some of the traditional menu options, but much more nutritious.

If you have a fondness for Silver Diner’s big breakfasts, the smoked Surry sausage and Virginia-cured center cut ham steak now come from Edwards and Sons in Surry, VA.  Founded in 1926, they are the only company still producing hickory-smoked hams in Virginia and they make them the old-fashioned way, from a 1604 recipe that uses brown sugar, fresh sage, red pepper and salt and smokes them for 24 hours.

The new menu reflects fresh and wholesome changes - photo by Jordan Wright

The new menu reflects fresh and wholesome changes - photo by Jordan Wright

Instead of white-flour flapjacks we could choose from banana granola pancakes made with local honey nut granola from a little producer in Baltimore or French toast made with wonderfully eggy challah bread from Uptown Bakery in Hyattsville where the diner sources all of its artisanal multi-grain breads.  And although they still have flaky fresh-baked in-house buttermilk biscuits you can opt for leaner turkey bacon to go with your eggs from Martin Farms in Fincastle, VA.  While there I spied an omelette prepared with a crab cake and sweet local corn folded in and blended with fresh scallions and Monterey jack cheese that’s still calling my name.

You begin to get the sense that big change has already come to Silver Diner when you are handed the menu featuring a chef on the cover crisply white-jacketed and cradling a bounty of fresh produce.  Inside the extensive menu lets you choose from 600-calorie entreés listing the fat (in some cases a mere 5 grams), calories, cholesterol count and fiber.  Lighter dishes like Mango Vegetarian Stir Fry served with whole-wheat angel hair pasta or Grilled Salmon with Lemon Garlic Sauce could satisfy even the pickiest eater, but they still feature favorites like the down-home Smothered BBQ Meatloaf made with two-week aged hormone- and antibiotic-free Angus beef from Black Eagle Farms in Piney River, VA.

We also found local Chesapeake Bay soft shell crab sandwiches, mid-Atlantic Mahi Mahi with brown rice and edamame that pair well with a selection of local beers Tupper’s from Maryland and Old Dominion and Star Hill breweries of Virginia.  Wines are from Virginia’s Barboursville, Horton and Chateau Morrisette located in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Even the diner’s Greenberry coffee was roasted in nearby Charlottesville, VA.  I don’t usually tout a price point but believe me your wallet will thank you.

Fruits and veggies at the Silver Diner's farmers market in Clarendon - photo by Jordan Wright

Fruits and veggies at the Silver Diner's farmers market in Clarendon - photo by Jordan Wright

Oh, yes, you can still get fries, though they’re fried in zero percent trans-fat oil just as they have done even before the new stricter standards… and all their milkshakes and malts are made with all-natural ice cream, no food coloring or preservatives, thank you.  The Chunky Monkey Banana Shake and the Peanut Butter Heath Bar Shake haven’t been abandoned either, but choices now include healthier alternatives like the Acai Pomegranate Shake made with organic acai berries, pomegranate juice,banana, yogurt and wheat germ or the Peachy Blue that adds fresh blueberries and peach topping.

Here’s where they pay it forward.  The diner is launching a program that reflects their commitment and transformation.  They call it “Eat Well Do Well!”   It not only gives the customer dollars-off on subsequent visits but also partners with Action for Healthy Kids and donates a portion of its sales to the Farm-to-School week promoted by First Lady, Michelle Obama.  Oh, and did I forget to mention they have free Wi-Fi?

Before driving off we picked up heirloom tomatoes, from Chris Guerre owner of the Maple Avenue Market in Vienna and scallions from Angela Stolberg of Lucia Farm in Culpepper.  It doesn’t get any fresher!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the next generation diner.

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