Of all the things I try to share with my kids when we visit New Jersey, there's one that I really wish I could, but I just can't.
When I was in grade school, my dad worked, and my mom stayed at home with me and my sister. She was there when we went to school; she was there when we came home. We ate out, sure, or got pizza from the local pizza parlor (FYI, Little Caesar's and Domino's do not qualify as pizza parlors), but mostly we ate home-cooked food. My mom was a terrific cook in those days. My folks are retired now, and her cooking skills, while still good, don't get the exercise they once did. But my point is that eating out was a lot rarer in those days than it is for me and my family. Meals out were special, for actual special occasions, like birthdays.
On the first day of school, every year without fail, my parents would take us out to eat. And pretty much every year, we'd go to Peterson's, located by the railroad tracks in Lakewood, New Jersey. As the name implies, it looked like a cabin on the outside, albeit a rather large one with reddish-colored logs. We'd pass through the front doors and have to walk past the big long bar, lit up only behind the bottles, to reach the dining room. This was a large open room, at the far end of which stood the charcoal grill, where most of the food was prepared. I used to sometimes walk over to that grill, never getting too close due to the heat, and watch the cooks as they worked.
Peterson's specialty was grilled and barbequed meats, prepared over that fire I was so fascinated with. They had steaks, chops and chicken. When I'd order the chicken, it always made my sister groan: in the era when restaurants like that made everything to order, chicken took extra time. I didn't mind, and neither did my parents; they always indulged us at Peterson's. If I recall correctly, the menu didn't have warnings about the perils of eating undercooked meat (unthinkable!), but advised the diner that if he/she wanted to order the filet mignon well-done, then "have it the way you like it, and all others be damned." Pretty radical stuff for a steakhouse menu, no?
The salad was kind of interesting, and something I don't think I've seen since: the wait staff would bring out a big bowl with quartered wedges of iceberg lettuce. You'd place one in your wooden salad bowl and dress it with your choice of, I think, Italian, blue cheese or French dressing. God, but I loved blue cheese dressing back then. I don't even remember tomatoes, olives or even carrots in that salad--just the lettuce wedges. You had to cut them with your steak knife in order to eat them, but oh well.
The baked potatoes were something else again. They would arrive with a little wooden spear in them, a sign of sorts, that informed you the potato had been "rubbed, scrubbed and tubbed" so that you could feel free to eat the skin if you liked. My childhood eating habits welcomed this innovation. I would butter the potato and eat a layer; then butter it again and eat another layer, until finally I'd consumed the entire thing. (No wonder I myself was pretty "tubby" back then.) I might add that those were big Idaho potatoes, the likes of which I no longer consume at dinnertime, since they're so enormous and I'd actually like to be able to eat the rest of my dinner too.
Aside from me ordering the charcoal-broiled chicken, I think my sister would usually have a burger, well-done, thanks, and my folks would've enjoyed steaks. I don't recall having appetizers, or my parents even offering them. With the dinners we used to eat at Peterson's, I doubt whether we would've had room for anything extra.
Peterson's went out of business some years ago, and I recently found some pictures of the condemned building on the internet. As I understand, it was torn down within the last few years, and so it now lives on only in the fond memories of those who dined there. Too bad. Oh well, my older kid's a vegetarian now anyway.