Friendly Family Fare

MIDDLE ISLAND—To say you’ve driven past the Cookroom more than a dozen times while either heading east or west on the North Shore is probable. While there’s no flashy sign or stand-out decor forcing your eye to land on the small diner-car style restaurant on Route 25 in Middle Island, once you know about it you can’t help but salivate a little each time you drive past.

Opening its doors in 2008, this family-owned and -operated, top-notch greasy-spoon-diner-style breakfast and lunch establishment has been serving up homemade, seasonally homegrown, made-with-love fare to locals and destination diners alike. Whether you walk through the doors by luck-driven chance or recommendation, it only takes one meal to make you a part of the Cookroom family: a friendly greeting, warm service and hearty home-cooked meals await you, and then you’re hooked and planning your next meal there. (Believe me, you’ll be back.) And when you do come back, there’s a good chance you’ll be greeted by name, your drink will be in front of you before you order it, and you’ll leave feeling better than you did when you walked in.

Owner Annie Mandler, known by her patrons as Granny Annie, has spent her life in the kitchen, either cooking for her family or working in similar style restaurants. “I believe breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and my children grew up with a hot breakfast in their stomachs every day. After they left home, I wanted to open the Cookroom.” She happily admits, “I know this business, and I love it! Working at a restaurant is something that’s in your blood and bones. I have been doing this since I was 18, and today at 56 it is still a joy to service the beautiful people who walk through our door.”

Annie’s son, Jim, and his wife, Lauren, run the restaurant, while Annie can still sometimes be found waiting tables or working the line. Jim, who studied economics in college and had no previous restaurant experience, came home from his life as a sales executive in San Diego after his mom called him for help opening the Cookroom. Then-girlfiend Lauren, a San Diego native and a seasoned hospitality graduate and professional catering manager, followed. The intertwined staff of friends and family include cousin and waitress Dawn, Annie’s best friend, Debbie (manager), and Debbie’s daughter, Erin, who is a waitress; Lauren herself works the floor while Jim works the line. When the Mandler family is out of town (Annie calls Florida her second home, and Jim and Lauren lately spend a lot of time in San Diego), Debbie runs the joint, staying true to the family feel, while her husband becomes a regular fixture, joining daughter Erin on the floor. The family vibe is evident; and each smiling face that visits your table makes it very clear that they are there because they want to be, and that makes you want to be there even more. Lauren explains, “Our family is the Cookroom; they are the reason we rise to work each day and, I believe, a big reason people come back. They need and want that kind of vibe, and we’re able to give it to them here.”

Sourcing locally is an important component to the values and flavors that make their menu so special, bringing in seasonal produce and honey from neighbor Half Acre Farms, also of Middle Island, and frying up their French fries in duck fat from Crescent Duck Farm in Riverhead. In the summer months, Jim’s garden out back supplies them with tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and basil, and Debbie brings in strawberries from her patch at home. It’s a homegrown cooperation whenever possible.

The food ranges from signature breakfasts—egg sliders, southern-style sausage gravy and biscuits, the ABC omelet (a melty medley of avocado, cheddar and bacon), a high stack of oaty oat pancakes topped with your choice of fresh fruit and walnuts, and Granny Annie’s famous baked oatmeal served with yogurt and granola—to hearty homemade soups, sandwiches, salads and burgers for lunch. Big sellers are the crab and corn chowder, sliced chicken sandwich stacked with eggplant, asparagus, roasted red peppers and mozzarella on grilled rye spread with pesto. The “Cookroom Combo” is a delicious take on a classic Reuben, with corned beef, pastrami, coleslaw, Russian dressing and melted Swiss on grilled rye. All sandwiches and burgers (juicy and gigantic) are served with a choice of hand-cut fries, homemade potato salad (also a signature of Granny Annie) or slaw. Cold drinks served in Mason jars and old-fashioned rich and creamy milkshakes add to the country diner feel of this warm and cozy establishment. And desserts range from homemade brownies (which make for great sundaes) to treats and confections crafted right on premises.

Jim says it best, with a smile, “Every day is an adventure, and it’s the epitome of instant gratification; the customer comes in hungry, you serve them a quality meal prepared with love and you are their hero. We open our doors to salt-of-the-earth, kind, supportive, real people. It’s a pleasure every day.”

The Cookroom is open Wednesday through Monday for breakfast and lunch.

25 Middle Country Road, Middle Island; 631.696.4260

Courtney MacGinley has a passion for good food and great films. She writes from her home in Coram.