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Don Cunningham: Lehigh Valley Eateries and the “Comfort of the Constant”

By Don Cunningham on July 1, 2022

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on July 1, 2022. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

My Old Man was home from Florida last month.

He and my stepmom make their annual pilgrimage north in May from the golf communities, six-lane highways, and senior citizen lollapalooza of South Florida when it gets so hot that he can no longer say, “it’s really not that hot here.”

They move in with us for a month or so. That’s a story for another column.

From here, they venture out to visit family, old friends and familiar terrain.

My wife, Lynn, loves to cook and is very good at it.

After about three weeks of free gourmet meals, my dad declared, “Val and I would like to take you two out to eat.”

The man is notorious for being, well, let me say — in this era of political correctness — quite frugal.

“We figured we’d go to the Crossroads in Hellertown,” he said — which means he figured it, but he likes the ring of the royal “we” in these matters.

The Hellertown Crossroads Hotel is one of the Lehigh Valley’s classic old-style bar/restaurants known for unique pizza, steaks and affordable fare in a setting that never changes.

Lynn ordered a pizza to share. I got a cheesesteak.

They chose not to order, declaring a slice of shared pizza should do it. The Old Man and I added a draft beer.

I quickly tacked on a side salad just to run up the bill and asked Lynn if she wanted one. She joined me.

Total bill: $32.75. Mission accomplished for him. Column material for me. Priceless.

I haven’t been at the Crossroads much in recent years. It was a favorite of my grandfather’s — my dad’s dad. He, too, was a man whose “frugality” was legendary. He once snuck into one of my college track meets to avoid paying the $2 gate.

The place hasn’t changed. A massive stuffed and shellacked trophy fish, dead since the early 1970s, still dominates the décor. The wallpaper and floor retain the circa 1950s charm.

The food is just as good. The memories of my childhood are even better.

A few weeks after my dad and Val went back to Florida $40 lighter (after the Crossroads extravaganza), my youngest son came in from Brooklyn for Father’s Day. I picked him up from the bus at the Park & Ride on William Penn Highway off Route 33 on a Sunday at noon.

We both were brunch hungry.

Without much contemplation, I suggested Williams Diner down the road near 25th Street in Easton. Its real name is Williams Family Restaurant and it’s been there since I’ve been here. It’s one of the rare places we went out to eat growing up.

We feasted: big omelets and home fries plus side orders of pancakes or French toast with coffee and iced tea. Total bill: $28.50.

As a Father’s Day gift, he picked up the check, saying, “I really miss the diners in the Lehigh Valley. There’s nothing like it in New York. The food is great and it’s so cheap.”

The acorns don’t fall far off the Cunningham Tree.

My wife is not a diner fan.

It may be because she grew up in the restaurant business. Her parents, Jack and Theresa Collins, owned and operated the Old Brewery Tavern in Bethlehem for 35 years from 1969 to 2004. All seven kids worked there at some point.

In an era before chic and expensive restaurants in the Lehigh Valley, the OBT (its unofficial name) was a staple for affordable, good food and drink — and a good time. Her Irish sportswriter dad worked the corner of the bar drawing crowds with his stories, while her Italian mom made the menus and ran the kitchen.

Today, Theresa’s 93-year-old, bone-on-bone shoulder joints bear the scars of four decades of lifting supplies, washing pots, and serving meals.

Restaurant work is hard. We are fortunate so many do it.

Today the Lehigh Valley has a growing, high-end restaurant scene serving food of nearly every variety with big city quality. That was not the case in the past.

The region’s restaurant and food heritage were built on working-class diners, family restaurants, hotel bars and hot dog and steak shops. Many of these were run by immigrant families to serve a hard-working region that needed to make a dollar stretch.

The result was authentic, unique places of great value. We’ve lost some over the years, like the recent closing of The Brass Rail in Allentown and The Mayflower Diner in west Bethlehem, but many remain.

They are the bedrock and backbone of a regional restaurant scene that has its own character.

Maybe because of my childhood, I gravitate to them.

My dad taught me how to find value.

During my career, most of my business lunches have taken place in them. When working in Allentown it was Seward’s Steak Shop or the Ham Fam, Parkland, Top, City View or Sunrise Diners. In Bethlehem, it’s been the Beef Barron, Johnny’s Gyros, Hanover Eatery, the Mayflower, Borderline, Dartos, or today, Sibri’s Diner on E. Broad Street. For a slight bump in price and menu, Billy’s Diner, Mitzi’s Table, or the Flying Egg on Main Street.

In either city, Yocco’s is an all-time favorite, a true guilty pleasure.

I’ve never worked in Easton. I’m sure they exist there as well.

I know I’m not alone. I see the crowds.

Maybe it’s not the price that brings us back.

Maybe it’s the memories — or the notion that in a changing and confusing world something remains the same.

The comfort of the constant.

Either way, a hearty thanks to those who own, operate and staff these places.

The Lehigh Valley is the winner.

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