Judie’s restaurant provides variety

By Garth Brody

Maria Uminski/Collegian

Judie’s Restaurant, instantly recognizable by its colorful striped awning, has long stood as a bastion of meat-and-potatoes American dining in the dense, increasingly eclectic restaurant arena of downtown Amherst. Facing no serious competition from abundant look-alike chains (Applebees, et al) on the nearby Rt. 9 commercial hellscape in Hadley, Judie’s has a strong reputation as the area’s family dining champ. And even though you’ll be hard-pressed to find a meal for under 10 or 11 bucks, the reputation is mostly deserved.

Inside, the artwork of Donna Estabrooks not only hangs on every wall, but also permeates tabletop designs, floor tiles and lighting arrangements, giving the decor a singular style. Estabrooks’ vibrant and colorful paintings, which fall somewhere between “abstract” and “cutesy,” set the tone for a modern but family-friendly atmosphere.

The menu features a standard lineup of appetizers, sandwiches, salads, entrees and deserts, but with the notable addition of a section labeled “Pops ‘N’ Stuff.” More on that later. The other departments offer mostly predictable fare, which is not necessarily a bad thing for a comfort food establishment, and the little bits of variety that can be found are enough to justify repeat visits.

The appetizer menu, for example, provides the usual potato skins and nachos, but with the welcome alternative of a veggie and pita platter with hummus and black bean dips, complete with fire roasted corn, cilantro, diced tomatoes and jalapeno peppers. This is a fresher, lighter cousin to a fully upgraded nacho platter, and it lands at about the same price.

The sandwich menu is a bit more varied, with enticing combinations like chicken with bananas, cranberry sauce, curry glaze and a peanut-coconut raisin mix, or chicken salad with sun-dried cherries and almonds.

Salads, which are advertised by Judie’s as meals unto themselves, are appropriately large, meaty and dressing-happy. Expect to find things like bacon, guacamole and cheddar cheese in a Judie’s salad. They also offer four different takes on the Caesar salad, including an adventurous variety that tops the salad with grilled salmon.

Then there are the “Pops ‘N’ Stuff.” The popover, which comes with every dinner entree, is Judie’s claim to fame. It is usually the primary selling point of a positive recommendation for the restaurant, and it is a point of pride for the establishment. Thus, the following statement may be a bit difficult to digest for stalwart patrons: The popovers at Judie’s are nothing special. Wait. Let me finish. This is not to rain on your parade. It’s just that the excitement of going to eat at Judie’s is not the famous popovers. This may come as a shock; the real excitement, it turns out, is the smooth, rich apple butter that comes with the popovers.

The popovers themselves are perfectly acceptable, buttery pastries, but try eating one cold. Charmless. Bland, even. The fact of the situation comes rushing in through the cracks in the walls of the Judie’s fantasy: this is an amorphous, puffy hunk of flaky dough, like a croissant designed by a kindergartener. Unlike a croissant, the popover’s crust is hard and crunchy, which makes it slightly more frustrating to eat. It is also enormous, which means it is almost impossible to savor the whole thing while it is still warm. It functions most usefully as a container for things like soup, which the chefs take full advantage of. But as a pre-meal pallet for spreadable condiments, it stands just about on par with hot bread.

The unassuming little container of apple butter that is served alongside the popover, on the other hand, is a perfectly delicious accompaniment that can and should be adopted by every restaurant that offers bread before a meal. Simple and tasty, apple butter is a smart upgrade.

By the time the entree arrives, the average diner will be about three-quarters full and running on an entirely scent-driven appetite. Appetizers and side salads are generously portioned and often quite heavy. The same goes for the entrees, so be ready to loosen the belt a few notches. The thick New York sirloin steak, which could stand to be a bit juicier, comes with mountainous garlic mascarpone mashed potatoes in addition to a fried potato cup with bacon and melted cheese, flanked by a pair of crispy onion rings and a creamy onion sauce. We recommend the delicious lobster ravioli, which is served atop two grilled chicken breasts. There are only two raviolis, but they will each take quite a few bites to conquer. The dish is covered in a creamy tomato sauce and flavored with garlic, spinach and sherry, and it comes with a tasty little risotto cake.

Dessert, if manageable, can be highly rewarding. The raspberry pie is fresh and tart, and the bizarrely compelling cake balls – which come in a variety of flavors – are a creamy treat when they are available (which isn’t always).

Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]