We’re all familiar with themed restaurants with faux antiques and a carefully crafted “old but clean” look. We’ve also eaten at old but not too clean restaurants, where the “antiques” are really the original pieces bought for the restaurant many years ago and left to collect an authentic patina of dust, dirt and grease.
The STEAMING TENDER RESTAURANT (28 Depot St., Palmer, 283-2744, www.steamingtender.com) is neither. The building is an authentic railroad station, designed by H. H. Richardson. It opened in 1884, serving the New London Northern and Boston and Albany railroads. It has been lovingly restored by owners Blake and Robin Lamothe in the 22 years they have owned it. They are restoration buffs and antique traders as well as restaurateurs and they have tried to create the feeling of an old-time railroad station that has seen a lot of use but is still well-kept.
The menu is pretty straightforward: burgers, salads, seafood and steaks, but there are some interesting surprises. A Portabella Napoleon with grilled portabellas, roasted red peppers and Gorgonzola cheese is drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette which ties it together and keeps it from being simply layers of vegetables targeted at the non-meat eater. The chili has tomatoes and kidney beans, but a nice cumin taste.
Since steak and railroad depots are almost a restaurant cliché, we ordered the New York Central strip steak (a New York strip, but railroad references abound on the menu). It arrived medium rare as ordered, seasoned only with salt and pepper, which let the flavor of the meat come through. The lamb chops were misadvertised as “four petite chops.” Thinking they would be two-bite “lollypop”-size chops cut off a rack, we were pleasantly surprised by their size — twice what we expected. They were rare, perhaps a touch too much so, but they were juicy and flavorful. Mashed potatoes and a mix of baby carrots and yellow and green string beans accompanied both dishes, a welcome change from zucchini/summer squash medleys.
The menu also has a fried seafood section. Blake Lamothe says he gets seafood shipments four times a week to keep the offerings fresh.
We tried one of the specials: haddock in lobster sauce, which consisted of three pieces of fresh fish in a tasty Newburgh-style sauce. The accompanying baked potato was wrapped in foil. The Lamothes are working on a new menu and say they’re using specials to try out dishes.
The large, high-ceilinged room can be a little noisy, but not unpleasantly so. Music from the 1940s plays over the sound system. There seem to be a lot of birthdays celebrated at the restaurant. The first one, with a birthday-themed version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” made me chuckle, but by the third birthday, I felt distinctly curmudgeonly. One can only imagine how the staff feels.
The wine list will hold no surprises, but the draft beer is worth investigating. The Lamothes serve Berkshire Brewing Steel Rail (of course), but also a tasty amber Station Ale made for them by BBC. Gold Spike is a lighter Kolsch-style beer. There are martinis as well.
For dessert, we tried the Strawberry Shortline, fried dough covered in strawberries and whipped cream. It arrived cut in quarters, the staff by now accustomed to the way our party shared everything. The ice cream was a nice surprise: a 14 percent-butterfat offering from a New Hampshire creamery called Blake’s. We especially liked the Graham Central Station, flavored with chunks of graham crackers.
The Lamothes were in their early 20s when they happened upon the old railroad station on a trip to Palmer to look for parts for a Model A they were fixing over. They bought the building in 1987 with the intention of restoring it. Along the way, they moved from Spencer to Palmer, bought an apartment building in town and moved their restoration and antique businesses there as well. For a time, they ran a flea market out of the station.
They finally opened the Steaming Tender in 2004. Neither had formal restaurant training, but Robin had been an events coordinator for international and themed events. They hired an experienced chef and concentrated their efforts on building the “feel” of the place.
The Lamothes are not aiming at fine dining at the Steaming Tender, but good midrange food done well. They want everyone to have a good experience and respond quickly if you have any problems.
I first heard about the Steaming Tender when I was researching outdoor dining. “It’s an old railroad station. You can eat outdoors and watch trains go by” was the story. Trains still go by the station and the Amtrak schedule is posted in the waiting room. Freight trains pass by regularly. While we were there, a tableful of train buffs commandeered a place by the window. The Lamothes recently restored a 1909 copper-clad dining car and host an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet in it on weekends. It makes for a nice brunch destination since you can spend some time exploring the station and the grounds.
The Steaming Tender is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday and Sunday and until 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Appetizers range from $3.75 for homemade potato chips to $9.99 for chili. Salads are $3.75 for the house to $16.50 for a lobster salad, with most around $7. Sandwiches are mostly in the $6.99-$7.99 range. Entrees run from $7.99 for fried chicken to $19.95 for the fisherman’s combo, with steaks slightly less than $20.
Originally published Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 17, 2009.