|Living Up to Its Name
351 Duanesburg Road (Route 7), Schenectady,
Mon-Thu 6 AM-midnight, • Fri-Sat 6 AM-1 AM, • Sun 6 AM-11 PM.
Entrée price range: $9 (meatloaf)
to $20 (18-ounce prime rib)
By B.A. Nilsson
My first-ever Capital Region rest aurant visit was to Tops, back in 1980, when it was still a square box of a diner. But I was still a relative latecomer—this place has been going for 70 years, since it opened as the Sodium Diner in honor of its newfangled lights. Back then it was a traditional railroad car; 30 years later it was replaced with the building I visited.
Plans to rebuild again first were hatched in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until last year that a new, twice-as-large structure went up. To emphasize a more streamlined menu, the restaurant’s name changed, too, losing the word “diner.” But it still offers a diner-style welcome, all-day breakfast and a short list of favorites from the former menu—comfort foods like meatloaf, chicken pot pie, roast turkey with stuffing, and fried chicken, all priced from $9 to $12 and including a soup or salad and the usual sides.
“We kept that part of the menu for our regulars,” said manager Tiffany, who has been with the restaurant for four years, “and we’ll try to make anything a customer wants. If someone asks for something we used to have and we can’t make it, we’ll take a phone number and give that person a call when we can.”
The whimsical typeface with which the word TOPS is rendered is echoed, in spirit, in the restaurant’s new decor. Palm trees are prominent and raise the bar of outrageousness, echoed in UFO-like lighting fixtures and the beach-cheerful pastels of the banquette backs. It combines into a fun, welcoming look.
You’ll be distracted, no doubt, by the dessert and pastry cases perched by the welcome station, which also doubles as an ice-cream bar. Carrot cake, apple pie, cheesecake, baklava, strawberry torte, éclairs, and more grin calorically back at you; outsized cookies, Danish, muffins, biscotti and other pastries await nearby. It’s all made on the premises; it all looks fantastic.
We swept past it, to a table in the heart of the place, escorted by a cheerful hostess who made sure we were comfortable before leaving us with menus. These remain diner-sized, with individual pages given to appetizers, steaks and seafood, chicken and pasta, the aforementioned comfort food, soup and salad, burgers and pizza, deli sandwiches and wine and beer (the restaurant also boasts a full bar).
There’s also an extensive daily specials list that veers toward the more (for this kind of place) exotic, such as wild mushroom risotto with chicken and sausage ($15), a bacon-asparagus pizza ($8) or even just grilled asparagus spears ($3.50).
You can start with a—hold on a sec; there goes my wife, ready to give her complete order to the server even as I agonize over what to drink. Can we just get some beverages first? Thank you. You can start with a $12 appetizer tasting platter that offers a selection of wings, potato skins, mozzarella sticks, jerk pot stickers and a bunch of dipping sauces, or you can order them individually ($6 to $8 apiece).
We opted for a single order of the pot stickers, unusual for this kind of menu, which turned out to be a delightful mix of mildly spicy chicken, onions and peppers in dumpling-like wrappers, served with a dark, tangy dipping sauce.
From the specials list I chose antipasto, always a great concept, often a disappointment when it turns out to be a pile of iceberg with deli meat thrown on top. This one, however, won me over with its Tuscan bean- tapenade-stuffed salami and grilled vegetable rollatini (a compote of slivers of peppers and squash wrapped in a grilled eggplant slice), on top of a good bed of mixed greens and supported by olives, marinated mushrooms, sharp provolone wedges and such.
Entrée orders typically include soup or salad. Soups of the day were a salty beef barley, tasting too much like a commercial brew for any distinction, and a much better chicken and pasta mix. The salad, as the antipasto suggests, sports fresh greens and a good mixture of veggies with a ramekin of dressing (all the popular choices are here) on the side.
How do they do with steaks? Quite well, as it happens. Although the 12-ounce NY strip steak was cut on the skinny side, it was grilled to the required doneness, suitably tender, and nicely mated with an onion-rich demi-glace ($17). Risotto is one of the available sides, and it was creamy and rich.
Not surprisingly, my wife ordered a chicken dish, in this case Mediterranean chicken ($13) in which the meat is served with capers and tomatoes, seasoned with garlic and lemon, dressed with thyme and parsley, and presented alongside red bliss potatoes. A good balance of seasonings and garnish made this more flavorful than is too often the case.
Mix some eggplant, feta cheese and roasted tomatoes and you have the potential for a good meal. Tops’ pork chops à la Mykonos adds the above to a generous-sized pair of chops ($15), and the extra flavors—especially the feta and tomatoes—gave the meat a desirable sweetness and fullness.
It is to the credit of owner Andreas Christou and his son Evan, the general manager, that not only is the food reliably good but also the staff is attentive and the morale is high. There’s nothing like an extreme makeover to bring new life to a restaurant, and this one obviously is enjoying its rebirth.