Every once in a while, a restaurant ceases being just a restaurant and ascends to a role as a culinary time capsule. It becomes an institution whose enduring menu preserves a pathway to the gustatory memory of a moment in the development of a community. In 1977, when Judie's opened its doors, the Pioneer Valley offered little more than a few old- New-England pot-roasters, one fancy French restaurant, the odd chop- suey purveyor, and a horde of Betty Crocker-style menus. This establishment was the response of a visionary who longed for something more.
In the quarter of a century since, Judie's has traversed the arc of a venerable restaurant. It hit its stride. It gained immense popularity. Now, a quarter of a century later, Judie's has begun, gracefully, to show its age. The immediate visual impact of the enormous, iconic popovers is no longer such a customer-satisfaction slam-dunk. It's no longer novel for Judie's to combine sweet and savory elements in, say, the curried chicken salad sandwich; late-model fusion restaurants have evolved several stages beyond this confusing melange of peanut, banana, raisin, coconut, cranberry, apple butter, and curry. Still, the sandwich tastes good.
So it's hard to say whether the queues that still stretch out the door at peak times (try off-hours for better results) derive more from loyalty to a wonderfully friendly Amherst institution than from a deep craving for the restaurant's steeply priced, irreverently eclectic food, which ranges from okay to tasty. Almost anything on the bewilderingly large menu can come served with, or inside, a popover, which is tender and eggy but not quite worth all the fuss. Baked onion soup is too salty, but it's still satisfying. Crispy french fries are bland and mealy on the inside. A green salad is bitter. Lobster and mussels do all right, but fish can fall flat. But reliably good desserts, such as bananas Foster and a chocolate lava cake, have a devoted following. And reasonably priced cocktails and wines prove that new-age eclecticists don't have to be teetotalers.
The several rooms are cute, kitschy, and flowery; design accents seem to have started out as craft-store supplies. The decor is a bit precious, but works with the restaurant's homey, welcoming appeal. The menu and attitude couldn't be more vegetarian-friendly, students-with- parents-friendly, senior-friendly, or almost-anything-or-anyone-else- friendly. And, with apologies to the popovers and quirky ingredient combinations, perhaps that has been this restaurant's most important contribution of all.