Words Sasha Graham Images Bill Brady
A roadside diner of dreams and a bastion of homemade food sits amidst bucolic farms, rolling hills and the yawning barns of Tyler Hill, Pennsylvania. Overflowing plates, flakey, fresh baked pies and bakery egg French toast meet the weary traveler. Proper breakfast offers optimism for the soul. It is a sign, an omen, a beautiful beginning to the day. But it’s easy to drive past Dutton’s Tyler Hill Diner without noticing it. Dutton’s doesn’t advertise. There is no website to click. No Facebook page to like. No Twitter feed announces daily specials. It sits, unassumingly, a speakeasy in plain sight. Beloved institutions require no advertising.
On any given summer Saturday, 300 plus eggs are poached, fried and scrambled by owner, Tracy Dutton. Fluffy golden buckwheat pancakes, larger than the human head, are dolloped with yellow butter, drape over plates and fly from the grill. Bacon and hamburger sized sausage snaps and sizzles. Warm walls reflect morning light. Crowds flock out the door. Tables are first come first serve. No reservations.
Counter seating offers a front row opportunity to watch kitchen theater with Tracy as conductor and her classic ingredients, a willing orchestra. Her sheet music comes from the orders hanging on a hand crafted chit holder. Crescendos build as orders of her famous toasted cinnamon buns come though. Hunks of butter are thrown to the grill, erupting in bubbles. Once slick, the cinnamon buns are tossed, bottoms toasted, while powdery white confectioners icing oozes and drips down the side. Leave all gluten and dairy free requests at home. “If you are on any sort of diet, don’t come in here,” says owner Tracy. “It’s not going to work out well for you.” Don’t dare ask for egg whites, “The whole reason the egg white exists,” says Tracy, “is to support the yolk.” Tracy’s insanely tasty dishes might stem from the fact that even after all these years, she still adores it. “I serve breakfast for dinner to my family at least one night a week. I love a good breakfast and I love eating. Who doesn’t want to see someone enjoy what they’ve created?”
The Olaf is a stand out dish for the savory palate. A momentous mound of peppers, onions and potatoes are presented with fried country sausage, topped with twin eggs. Sausage grease filters down to the bottom of the plate. Working though the mound of potatoes to the base, you are confronted with the holy trinity of fat, flavor and crunch. The dish is named Olaf, after a regular who visited the diner for years and who requested this special order. Customers, fascinated as the dish floated by, began asking Tracy for it. She placed it on the menu.
“Mis en place” is apparent in the neat organization of Tracy’s open kitchen. No one operates the grill, cracks an egg or flips a pancake other than her. If Tracy can’t work, her mother operates the grill in her place. No mushy potatoes or soft wimpy veggies languish. Everything is served al dente, snapping with flavor and vibrant color. The home fries are crispy and the optional county fair style peppers and onions are cooked to order.
Looking past your greedy taste buds, you realize more resides at Dutton’s than simple comfort food. Dutton’s is a community institution since opening its doors in 1985 when Tracy’s father decided to retire as a truck driver and open a country store. Tracy’s mother installed a grill and opened the diner on the other side. The historic building once held a general store with voting rooms upstairs and original 1920s gas pumps. Teenage Tracy and sister Christy were often called on to pump gas. Tracy eventually took over the diner.
The words “Hi Trace!” and “Bye Trace!” echo repeatedly as loyal customers, community members and friends come and go. Many have watched Tracy grow up. Summer tables are filled with visitors, families and councilors from nearby Tyler Hill Camp who make Dutton’s visits an annual tradition. Slew of local businesspeople and farmers gather to discuss the weather or comment on the rising and falling cattle markets. Cheerful paintings of chickens and cows hang on the wall, all of it for sale and all painted by neighbor and friend, Barbara Polny. Tracy’s been showered by marriage proposals, usually from the older gentlemen who pepper her counter. Would be suitors settle for coffee and Tracy’s warm wit since she is married to contractor Micah Wilcox with whom she has two children.
Dutton’s Diner holds no pretense. It stands in the tradition of great American diners with a feminine, comforting twist. It doles out heaping plates of quality that are not easy to come by in the modern age. A place for community and family. Come for butter, bacon, sugar and smiles. Don’t forget to order a slice of homemade pie or cake on your way out. And be sure to get there before 11:30am when the breakfast menu switches over to lunch.
The crowds calm down a bit in the off-season. But even this is evolving. “The biggest change I’ve noticed over the years are the second home owners,” says Tracy. “They used to close up their houses in September. We wouldn’t see them till the following year. Now, people use their second homes year round. We see ‘em every weekend.”