Ralph's Cafe, a Diner's Surprise in Brooks, Maine
When I asked for the story of Ralph's Cafe, I got a laugh line that, while well practiced, smacks a whole lot of the truth. “We bought it,” said Mike, the steadfast man doing everything but cooking, “because then we wouldn't have to look for jobs.” The “it” was a cafe for sale in Brooks, an unassuming town in low-profile Waldo County, Maine. The “we” was a family that had recently dropped anchor there after leaving New York because of 9/11.
The result is the kind of place you always wish you'll chance upon but rarely do because it's too hard to find. In this part of Maine, most small towns rarely boast more than 1,200 permanent residents and an all-purpose general store-cum-gas station. Any other non-cottage-industry commerce in need of notice sets up in the nearest city or on the main thoroughfares. Except Ralph's. You have to know it's there (12 Purple Heart Hwy) and how to get there. Something plenty of people do, if the full tables are anything to go by.
Ralph's Cafe is an eclectic combo of antique tchochke- and memorabilia-filled walls, comfort foods and international treats. At breakfast/brunch, it's homemade loaves and jams, and pancakes as fat (and fluffy) as thick-sliced bread. At other meals, it's burgers and meatloaf, but also quiche and a tajine, curry or other ethnic surprise. While it's not gourmet, it makes no tilts in that direction either. Instead, it's solid country cooking, straight-forward service and the welcome hum of very satisfied locals.