Years before it had been a generic sort of ice-cream stand, the type that sold soft frozen custard in a cone and crinkle cut potatoes fried in Vitalis. But that memory is so vague as to be almost absent.
My earliest vivid recollection is the view when our car came down the slope off the exit ramp from the Quickway and first touched rubber on Route 42. Before there was McDonalds, before there was Jamesway, before there was a movie theater, or Dunkin’ Donuts or that God awful Italian joint, Rockys, there was the clear view of that yellow and brass lantern hanging off the sign over the two lane highway that read simply, LEFTYS. Then, underneath, worthy of inclusion in any collection of classic understatements, the clever pun, “What foods these morsels be.” What foods indeed!
Was the food actually that good, or have we tinged the memory with stardust for our glory years and youth, and decreed that everything was better then, so it must have been extraordinary? No, I am certain there was magic in the cuisine, the preparation, the service, the entire experience, such that it transcended just going out for a burger and fries. LEFTYS was what, in a perfect world, McDonalds and Burger King would have been, and if God were paying close attention to our recent gastronomic inclinations, today tens of thousands of LEFTYS would dot the American landscape. I mean, if you’re going to tango with the demon cholesterol, at the very least you want to dance with Astaire. And, lets face it, kids, LEFTYS was nothing if not the Lugers, the Lespinasse, the Lutece, of fast food (and it was no easy trick finding all those “L’s”).
It began with the process of ordering your food, no easy task in itself, because though surely every regular had his/her favorite, almost everything LEFTYS served was remarkably delicious. The burgers need no testimony, and the onion rings are of legend. The onion soup was certainly the finest in the mountains, perhaps the best anywhere on the planet. A steaming crock of rich, mahogany broth, crowded with onions, a wedge of saturated bread, and crowned with a generous ceiling of bubbling, golden cheese. My stomach now churns and yearns at the memory. You waited your turn to order, and each time you were certain you’d decided, your eye caught sight of another hand-lettered sign admonishing another of LEFTYS offerings: the foot long hot dog, the Mountaineer, ribs, chicken and shrimp in a basket, the hot roast beef, the notorious friend chicken livers (my grandfather’s favorite, and not half bad, I mean, for liver).
A fresh-faced employee took your order, marking the selections on a pre-printed menu/order ticket, and handed you a stub that was numbered and color-coded. Behind this activity, very often LEFTY himself was supervising the food preparation, the grill flames forever shooting heavenward, as if the Gods themselves were eager to imbibe the sacred aroma of LEFTYS kitchen.
Quick—what were the six colors of the tickets? Time’s up. Red, black, green, orange, brown, purple. You adjourned to a table, pausing at the pickle stand—a forerunner of the ubiquitous salad bar. There you loaded up on pickle slices, onions and relish. Seated now, you anxiously waited, like a bingo player on the edge, to hear your number called. “Red 57! 62 green. Brown 12!”
Then at the counter again, the revered offerings piled high on a tray, you performed a balancing act worthy of the Flying Walentas in returning to the table, the food unmolested.
Someone had poured quarters into the great jukebox, and the sounds of Tommy James, or the Rascals, or the Beach Boys, filled the room as you relished LEFTYS’ peerless culinary wizardry. Outside, beyond the parking lot, cars moved along Route 42. Across the road construction was underway on what you’d been told would be a shopping mall. In the distance you heard the rumble of a coming summer thunder-bumper, loud and angry and ominous. You shrugged and bit into another onion ring. All was perfect in your world.