In the time before Interstates 70 and 270 were built, when President Franklin Roosevelt and his entourage traveled to Shangri-La (the presidential retreat now called Camp David) from Washington, they might stop in Middletown, Md., at Main’s Dairy for ice cream before the final leg of the trip north.
A stop at the same spot today, now called the Main Cup, is a stop in history. Yet today, the Main Cup is thoroughly modern and the food and beverages it offers travelers are fresh and up-to-date.
On a recent visit, my sometimes-vegetarian friend, Grace, and I entered into a light-filled coffeehouse. Five, large windows with wavy, old glass embraced a room filled with welcoming seating and the aroma of brewing coffee. The flooring was old wood and the walls were painted wood. Two large, wooden, cooler doors, made long ago by Jones of Hagerstown, held pride of place.
The room invited serious conversation and lighthearted banter. My friend found a leather journal in which visitors had written their memories of this old place. “Listen,” she said, “one person wrote, ‘Where’s the ice cream?’” Hunger drew us farther back into the restaurant.
There was an outdoor patio where butterscotch-colored umbrellas protected patrons from the heat and sun. It was a glorious late June day but we opted to eat in the air-conditioned main dining room, which had a bar at one end. We chose a round, wooden table at the far end from the bar. Here we could watch everything, inside and out.
The restaurant became busier as the hour wore on. Young people flirted near the bar. A family of three generations sat by the door. To our right, on couches, a mother holding her infant spoke with two women. Waitresses flew by with white plates, and the owner wandered in and out.
On the wall was a quilt with the logo of the Main Cup — a brown coffee cup with steam rising — sewn onto a pale olive background with a shower of stylized coffee beans.
Ordering was challenging, as everything sounded delicious. I gave up the decision-making process and said I would have a cheeseburger. Grace egged me on to be more daring. So I changed my order to onion straws and the sushi-fresh ahi tuna, which I knew would be served raw. When the waitress asked me how I wanted my tuna cooked, raw, medium or well, I nearly backed down. But then I bravely said, “Medium,” and made some peace with my selection. Graceordered quiche and a salad.
The coffee was great, as advertised. It came in a large white cup, hot and steaming, freshly roasted, fragrant and stimulating. Refills made my friend wonder how much caffeine I could tolerate, but when the coffee is this good, the cup is bottomless for me. She ordered iced tea.
The waitress came with the onion straws — a golden mountain of slim, curly, fried onions on a white square plate. We each received a small, square, white plate and my friend opened the Heinz ketchup bottle. “This is genuine, unwatered ketchup,” she exclaimed and thumped the bottle squarely and repeatedly on the bottom.
After much thumping, when a satisfying amount of ketchup sat on the white plate beside the squiggly onion rings, the waitress came with a little cup of ranch dressing for the onion straws.
The deep-fried, thin-sliced onions tasted terrific and were even better with the ranch dressing. And they worked as an appetizer as I got hungrier with each bite.
As I ate, I watched the waitress serve huge juicy hamburgers and enormous crab cakes to other patrons and regretted my choice of raw fish.
We studied Grace’s house salad of lettuce, spinach, carrot curls and cherry tomatoes with honey-mustard dressing, then looked up when the waitress served my ahi and Grace’s tomato, spinach and feta quiche.
Grace said, “Nobody made a better quiche than my mother,” and then she took a bite. I took a bite, too. We agreed that Grace’s mom remained the quiche champ. Main Cup’s quiche was bland; it had suffered from being reheated in a microwave.
Then I faced my moment of truth. The large portion of ahi tuna sat on an open challah roll with a slice of tomato and lettuce. Aside from a searing on the top and bottom, the fish was indeed raw. But since it was of sushi quality, I took a bite. And I was transported.
This tuna was absolutely delicious, exquisitely fresh, perfectly seared, filled with flavor. When the vegetarian Grace tasted it, she said, “I am going to order that the next time I come.” I closed my eyes and inhaled the fragrance of fresh fish and tasted the essence of ahi. This was the pure joy of really good food perfectly prepared. Then I found the little cup of wasabi-flavored mayonnaise — mayo flavored with hot, Japanese horseradish — and this enhanced the fish’s flavor.
The side dishes were good. Grace had a simple, fruit salad of fresh grapes, honeydew, strawberry, mango and pineapple. My side was a broccoli salad with cheese, bacon, raisins and a light dressing.
But it was dessert that took us back to the heights of culinary happiness. Facing 10 options, Grace chose tres leches cake for us to share. She had never had it before, nor heard of it. I remembered my first tres leches cake, a delicious milky treat in a busy Cuban restaurant in Orlando, Florida.
This tres leche cake was different from that earlier version, but delicious in its own way. A heavy fluted glass held a moist cake with sweet-cream icing and plenty of whipped cream. Served with strawberries, it was rich and milky and we scraped the glass for every sweet morsel.
We sat back and sighed with pleasure. What a great lunch. Good friends, great food, excellent service, pleasant surroundings. “There is one flaw,” Grace declared. “Where is the ice cream? This was a creamery for years.” There was vanilla ice cream with some of the desserts, but we both remembered long-ago ice cream cones on hot summer days.
Heading out, we saw above the front entrance an enormous, elaborate chandelier. The owner passed by and said his wife had rescued it from an old theater basement and restored it. The chandelier dated to 1924, he said.
And I looked at it again and thought of an earlier time, a simpler time, when presidents and children alike stopped at the Middletown creamery for ice cream on their way to summer adventure.
Omni Vore is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail writer who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.