Published April 04. 2013 4:00AM Updated April 09. 2013 2:04PM
If you're feeling peckish while traveling through the area on I-95 but you want to stick close to the highway, you'll likely be glad to find the Mystic Diner.
The big, brightly lit restaurant attached to the Howard Johnson hotel on Route 27 offers a huge menu of all-day breakfast fare, plus soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, wraps and paninis, and a selection of Italian, seafood, meat and poultry entrees, plus nightly specials.
You'll also find Greek delights - gyro and spanakopita among them - belying its pedigree as a sister restaurant to the Parthenon diners in Old Saybrook and Branford.
Having been to the Old Saybrook location, I was hoping for the same sunny, old-world charm here. But that isn't the case. Instead, the intent seems to be to capitalize on the visibility from the highway by providing a more generic, chain-like feel. That is to say, this place would be a great find at 10 at night to break up a long drive, but perhaps it would not be the first choice for someone who is familiar with the area's many dining options.
A big place plus a large menu can create the potential to please a lot of people. In July and August, the Mystic Diner is probably hopping with tourists, those passing by and those visiting local attractions. But in winter, such a big room can feel cavernous, and prepping so many choices can mean that some of it may sit a bit before being served.
On my first visit, I was one of four for a weekday lunch. Our waitress was friendly, fast, and although busy, never left us wanting.
Two of us ordered from the breakfast menu. I had the eggs Benedict, which came with home fries, as did my vegetarian friend's broccoli-cheese omelet. The home fries were tasty but lukewarm. My friend's omelet was fully cooked, but the cheese inside had not been allowed to melt. My hollandaise was very good, but my eggs were too cooked - the yolks were solid. My English muffin was more spongy than crispy, but the Canadian bacon was fresh and tender.
The third in our party tried a roast turkey sandwich on whole wheat. The fourth chose the pastrami Reuben and a cup of clam chowder. Both sandwiches came with fries and coleslaw.
The chowder was filled with tender clams, but it was too thick, with a slight floury taste. The turkey sandwich featured thick slabs of freshly roasted bird. The pastrami earned praise for taste, tenderness and meat-to-marble-rye ratio - generous but not crazy huge. But the bottom slice of bread was soggy, as if the sandwich had sat too long. The coleslaw was deemed OK and the fries, tasty but pale.
As you enter the Mystic Diner, you face a display of house-made desserts - cakes, pies, pastries - which proved irresistible. We closed our lunch with apple pie à la mode. We asked for vanilla ice cream but, upon discovering they were out, our waitress substituted maple walnut. She wouldn't charge us, she said, and she would swap if we wanted, but she said the other flavors of Giffords Ice Cream (family-owned and Maine-based) seemed too complex for our pie. We went with her choice and didn't regret it. The ice cream was delicious. It out-shined the pie.
My second visit was for Sunday night dinner with my husband. Our waiter brought the regular menu plus a prix fixe selection, offering one of three items in each of three categories - appetizers, entrées and desserts - for $16.95. My husband went with that option, choosing mini tacos, fish & chips and Boston cream pie. I ordered the beef gyro (vs. chicken) and sweet potato fries from the regular menu.
Although our waiter was cheerful and attentive, the restaurant itself was wilted. There had been some local holiday events so it could have been the end of a busy weekend. Our table was clean, but the dining room and bathroom floors really needed a mopping.
Our mini tacos were adorable and delicious. Tiny corn tortillas, six of them, each about the size of a silver dollar, were stuffed with a beef mixture, folded in half and fried crispy, then served with a decent guacamole, salsa and sour cream. An auspicious start.
The gyro was delicious, with plenty of spicy, tender meat on a soft, toasty pita, gilded with cucumber, parsley, fresh tomato and tzatziki sauce. The sweet potato fries were freshly made and crispy.
Although not the best we've ever had, my husband's fish & chips were good. The thick, fresh filets were well cooked, but the batter was a little heavy. My husband ignored his fries, sharing mine instead.
I asked for some baklava while my husband enjoyed his Boston cream pie - a generous wedge of two-layer yellow cake filled with vanilla custard and topped with chocolate frosting. Yum. My baklava, on the other hand, was inedible. It was tough - I couldn't cut it, or even puncture it, with my fork. When I managed to cut a bite with my knife, the texture was oddly grainy. Our waiter saw that I hadn't eaten it and asked why. He apologized, and on his own initiative, took the baklava off our bill.
As we were leaving, a family we had noticed in the diner was walking back to their hotel. License plates in the parking lot ranged from Florida, Tennessee and Maryland to New York, Massachusetts and Maine.
It's a mixed bag at the Mystic Diner, but overall a fine solace for a weary traveler, particularly if he orders the sweet potato fries.