Nostalgia and familiar flavors on the Pomme de Terre River
Mix equal parts small-town charm with from-scratch flavor, and you’re cooking from the same book of recipes as Rich and Joy Porter. If the bright red sign of the Home Town Diner in Hermitage doesn’t catch your eye, the smell of Joy’s fresh-baked bread, dinner rolls and burger buns certainly will. Taking cues from classic American diner menus of the 1940s and ’50s, the Porters — Rich, Joy, their four children and daughter-in-law — take pride in the restaurant’s old-fashioned favorites served in a nostalgic setting.
Rich and Joy have plenty of experience in the comfort food department. The broadcast journalism students-turned-concessionaires earned their culinary stripes working fairs and festivals and catering company picnics. After moving from Illinois to Missouri in 2019, the couple searched for a permanent location and found it in the former home of Jack and Virginia’s, as the restaurant was previously known. The Porters opened Home Town Diner in January 2020. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the following month business began to dwindle. In March, the family decided to shutter the diner until foot traffic and food prices normalized.
“One of the customers made the comment, ‘You’re going to have to fight a war to keep this place open,’ and boy, he was right,” Rich recalls.
One positive of the closure was it gave the family time to fine-tune their processes before reopening in June 2020. And while the building wasn’t in the art deco style the couple were searching for, it was otherwise exactly what the Sac Osage Electric Cooperative members wanted.
“A diner is more than that — it’s the feel,” says Joy. “It’s the people, the atmosphere, the friendliness, the service, the homemade food, the small town.”
Breakfast is a can’t-miss meal at Home Town Diner, so good that Rural Missouri readers voted the restaurant “Best Breakfast” in 2022. Hungry diners perusing the Good Morning Neighbor Sunrise Menu favor the Mountaineer Skillet. The diner’s hashbrowns cooked in an iron skillet are combined with green peppers and onions on the flattop grill. Rich scrambles eggs — two for the regular, three for the large — into the mixture and adds cheese. Once the behemoth breakfast has browned on both sides, it receives more cheese and a heaping helping of homemade sausage gravy. “That’s the other thing about a diner: You have to have good sausage gravy,” Rich says. “People will be upset if they don’t get it.”
Breakfast fans will find another early-morning standby comes with not only plenty of gravy, but also Joy’s fluffy, layered biscuits. She also makes the diner’s pancake and waffle batters from scratch, the latter of which is best experienced in the Pecan Waffle. Rich adds toasted pecan pieces to the batter as it bakes and tops the toasty grid with a ball of homemade maple pecan butter. Paired with a cup of house-ground coffee, their breakfasts can’t be beat.
Lunch is served from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Home Town Diner, and the signature midday meal is Big Mike. The double-patty burger’s flavor starts with Joy’s club bun toasted quickly on high heat. One-third of a pound of hamburger is formed into two patties, and while that’s on the grill the toasted buns are dressed with shredded lettuce, pickles, onion, a slab of cheese and secret sauce.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re using Thousand Island dressing,’ but it’s not,” Rich says of the secret sauce’s flavor. “I give Joy all the credit because she spent hours scouring recipes, experimenting and putting the hamburger together until it was perfect.”
Served with a side of hand-cut fries, the combo is best paired with soda for the full diner experience, according to Rich. Home Town Diner has its own line of specially concocted old-fashioned flavors so sweet, you’ll be looking for the paper-hatted soda jerk who poured them.
On Sunday from 11 a.m. until close — or more likely, when the special is sold out — you’ll find the diner’s tables full for fried chicken. Skin-on pieces are marinaded between 12 and 18 hours, battered with a combination of organic flour and special spices, and then returned to the refrigerator for another 2 to 3 hours while the batter sets. Approximately 12 minutes after entering the Henny Penny fryer, the crispy, golden chicken is ready to admire and devour. Rich estimates the diner fries between 50 and 60 pounds of chicken every Sunday.
“One of the secrets to fried chicken is you want to lock in the juices, and the skin helps do that,” Rich says. “So we pay attention to the pieces we use. The more skin, they fry better.”
Other regular favorites include items from the Home Town Specials menu such as pork tenderloin sandwiches flattened by hand. Or, try Rich’s favorite, the Catfish Bun. Instead of cornmeal batter, a special crumblike breading is what sets these fillets apart. Specials, including daily specials not found on the menu, are served with chips and coleslaw.
“What was kind of a defining moment with the coleslaw was my mom actually switched to my recipe,” Joy adds with a laugh. “That was huge.”
If you managed to save room for dessert, you won’t be disappointed. The diner’s pie case is brimming with homemade goodies including apple dumplings — a recipe passed down from Joy’s grandmother — creme brulees and cream pies. When she’s not following her own muse, Joy is always up for a challenge from the customers to recreate some favorite dish or flavor.
Rich sums up the Home Town Diner experience in the words of one customer when he tried the Big Mike.
“The minute he took a bite he said, ‘That takes me back to my childhood,’ ” Rich recalls. “When we heard that we were like, ‘We did it.’ That’s what we wanted: Something that brings you back 50 or 60 years. And if we can do that, then we’ve got something pretty good going on.”