Hereditary Plates

Hereditary PlatesHereditary Plates

I n Poppy’s Restaurant, the word “Poppy” pops up a lot. “Poppy, have you seen this?” says someone at the counter, gesturing at the TV. “Poppy, since when are home fries two dollars?” says a man sitting at one of the red-checked tables.

Poppy Cimino—the owner, namesake and patriarch of the restaurant—flashes a good-natured grin. “For you, they’re eight dollars,” he says. The whole restaurant laughs like a sitcom audience.

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Poppy’s is a quintessential diner, with a casual authenticity other restaurants might try to evoke in their decor and menu choices but can’t quite capture. Family-run for 45 years and counting, with a group of diehard regulars who begin their days with coffee and pancakes, local news and conversation, it’s a North Branford institution.

Dolly, Poppy’s sister, is behind the counter, complimenting a new customer she’s never met before on his “beautiful eyes.” She takes my recorder and impishly announces that she’s “the most important person in this restaurant.” Lisa, Poppy’s daughter, is on the floor, pouring coffee and bantering. Robert, Poppy’s son, and Shirley, Robert’s wife, are in the back, cooking pancakes on the griddle.

There’s a menu behind the counter, but it’s seldom used. When it comes time for me to order, I’m told to try—what else?—The Poppy’s Special. I get two eggs over easy, pancakes and home fries subbed in for the regular bacon or sausage. At $7, which includes a cup of coffee, it’s one of the most expensive items on the menu, other than the Specialty Omelet for $8.50. Poppy’s is cash-only, and while there’s an ATM in house, it doesn’t seem to work.

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In the three minutes it takes for the food to be served, I talk with Richard and Ruthie Macri, who’ve been starting their days at Poppy’s since 1978. “This is my seat,” Richard says. “It has a cushion and everything. Anytime anyone sits here, I throw ’em out.” A few weeks ago, he and Ruthie were in the restaurant to celebrate Poppy’s mother’s 100th birthday. A day earlier, they were at Apicella Bakery, which is run by Poppy’s brother Al, to buy bread and pastries for a funeral service. “This is family,” Poppy says of the Macris, scooting past us with a pot of coffee.

My food arrives. Dark, strong coffee. Two fluffy pancakes topped with a reservoir of melting butter, pan-fried potatoes with ketchup and two eggs, perfectly runny. The meal was no-frills—no flavor experimentations, decorative parsley or orange slices here—and had the simple, familiar taste of great home cooking.

“I’m not just saying this just because I’m the cook here,” says Robert, “but everything at Poppy’s is delicious.” He’s been working in the restaurant since he was 12 years old, when he started washing dishes and busing tables. “I grew up in the restaurant. I couldn’t even see over the counter when I started… and now I’m the head cook here,” he says. “I plan to keep Poppy’s as a family restaurant and pass it on to my kids.” His daughter Ashley is sitting next to me at the counter.

As I eat, Poppy starts talking with the new diner Dolly complimented earlier. Poppy tells him he looks like his old friend Joe, “who lived down there, by the corner.” Turns out, Joe is the man’s father, and he told his son about Poppy’s, insisted he try it out.

When I ask Lisa, Poppy’s daughter, what makes the restaurant special, she answers immediately, already tearing up. “My dad. Everyone loves him,” she says. She tells me that Poppy, now 82, likes to play cards at the casino in his spare time. In turn, many of the dealers have started coming to the restaurant for breakfast. “He’s a good dad,” she says before excusing herself to wipe her tears.

Poppy himself is a sweet, understated presence with a grandfatherly forthrightness. He talks with me for a moment, but we have to cut the interview short. He’s busy—everyone wants to speak with him about something.

“We’ve been here for 45 years,” he says. “That’s it. Eat your breakfast.”

Poppy’s Restaurant
280 Branford Road, North Branford (map)
Mon-Fri 5am-1pm, Sat 6am-1pm, Sun 7am-1pm
(203) 488-0092 | cash only
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Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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