Thursday September 6, 2012

LEE -- Downtown Lee has seen quite a few changes over the past few years, including some major renovations and shiny new Main Street facades. Though Sullivan Station Restaurant is under new ownership as of last year, it can still claim the authenticity of a 30-year-old restaurant built in a 130-year-old train depot.

I went on Sunday with two family members and the place was bustling. I’m glad I made reservations because the only empty tables were marked "Reserved." Both the outdoor deck area and the indoor dining room were buzzing like a beehive with the excited clamor of families and servers whirling about.

At first I was a overwhelmed by the volume, as were my tablemates, and when I saw a musician step up to microphone plugged into a surprisingly large sound system, I anticipated an hour of obnoxious crooning. At least I could gaze at the antique railroad memorabilia covering the walls, I thought.

After a few minutes of settling in, though, we found ourselves loudly debating over the menu, flagging down zooming waitresses to ask for a second round, and unintentionally humming along with the songs that David Mala chino, who performs in the dining room every Sunday night, was strumming on his acoustic guitar.

The atmosphere now seemed less chaotic and more like that of a celebratory family reunion.


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The crowd was all-ages and the servers integrated humor and familiar banter into their rapport with each group of diners. The whole service staff seemed to be having fun, a rare sight in the restaurant industry.

Our waitress, Emily, emer ged out of the flurry to de scribe the evening’s dinner specials, chat with us a bit about the restaurant’s atmosphere, and crack some well-timed jokes. Her easy demeanor and ability to clarify any question and accommodate any request suggest that the Station is often this crowded and that the staff has no trouble facilitating a comfortable and satisfying experience.

David started off by covering tunes by the Rat Pack, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, etc. He even threw in jokes and a bit of audience participation in between songs. The volume was a bit loud at times, but that also let us, the diners, know that we could be a little loud and silly, too. This cue was not missed by anyone.

I kept anticipating that this performance, stationed in the middle of a crowded dinner scene, would grow aggravating or at least falter too far in the direction of nuisance. But the more he played the more the crowd, my table included, got into it. By the time he hit "Sweet Caroline," half the room was singing along.

And this is when my companions decided to get up and dance. Part of me cringed and wanted to hide in the bathroom, but I couldn’t because I was having too much fun. Far from causing a traffic jam or eliciting a disapproving stare from the manager, their giggly swaying fit in perfectly with the evening’s tone. They were soon joined by another couple, and then by a woman who asked if she could sing a Patsy Cline song. Yes, yes she could.

This whole scene was so raucous, cheesy and sweetly sincere that I got lost in the spectacle. Attention quickly shifted to the food when it arrived, though, with each dish displaying portions of diverse and colorful elements.

The dinner menu is vast, with full lists of appetizers, super salads, entrees, fish of the day, pasta, vegetarian or vegan dishes, and lighter fare. Most dishes fall under the umbrellas of Italian and Coastal New England cuisine.

I went with one of the five specials, a steamed lobster with roasted potatoes, corn on the cob and clams. The $25 price tag was justified by hearty portions of fresh and flavorful ingredients.

The inclusion of mashed sweet potatoes mixed in with the roasted white potatoes was a lovely detail. It was an ideal meal for the tail end of the summer.

Laura started with the baked onion soup for $6.25, which impressed us all. Both the stringy topping of bubbly cheese and the steaming crock of broth burst with flavor. She couldn’t keep Mike and me from stealing eager spoonfuls.

Her $9.95 appetizer of mussels with a white wine sauce was also delicious and was not a small dish.

Once the shellfish were gone we sopped up the remaining buttery, salty, wonderful sauce with the big basket of bread on our table.

Mike made the evening’s best choice, in my opinion, by ordering the homemade meat lasagna for $16.95. It had the complex flavors and textures of fine Italian fare and the portion was large enough for sharing. And share we did. We passed plates and forkfuls to each other as if playing a hand of cards.

It was the Sullivan Station’s atmosphere that encouraged this family-style ease. Every one in the building -- Emily who zipped from table to table with a smile, David belting out Barry Manilow songs, and the many diners sitting around tables crowded with steaming plates -- was sharing the evening together.

Some people would go nuts in such a noisy, busy atmosphere.

Heck, I thought I was one of those people at first.

But friends and families who prefer dinner to be more of a celebration that a business meeting will leave this new-old restaurant full, happy, and whistling Neil Diamond.