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On an early Sunday afternoon it's busy at Earl's Drive In, a landmark that's existed since 1956. It sells T-shirts and caps with its name on them, offers milkshakes and floats in collector cups, has an attached country music museum and calls itself a "real food family restaurant."

Also, the place is dedicated, according to the menu, to the farmer, "that hard working proud example of the American Way of Life."

Agriculture is a way of life here, and a successful one. The tractor-type seats lined up at the short counter are full; and so are the tables in the dining rooms, adorned with a Future Farmers of America banner and rimmed by a shelf full of miniature tractors.

A child-size tractor atop the refrigerated pie case -- and oh what a pie case -- is attracting wistful looks from the small boys who walk by.

Honest food is served in this place. Copiously. Inexpensively. We start out with root beers served in Earl's signature half-pint fruit jars with straws sticking out of them. The Companion goes on to Hamburger Vegetable Soup ($1.40) which is tasty, although maybe -- just maybe -- there's been quite a run on the soup. It tastes just a tad watered down.

Things improve, however, with the C's Hot Oven Roasted Turkey Sandwich Platter, which is high school cafeteria type -- food just the way the Companion (and probably half of America) likes it. White bread, salty tan gravy, mashed potatoes and piquant stuffing.

But this Turkey Sandwich is much better than most because the poultry slices are thick and moist. It is honest to goodness turkey. No pressed meat here.

Meantime, I am being called by the Ham Steak Dinner ($6.70). The menu says it's a plateful and its not kidding. Excellent ham steak, not too salty, not too smoky. I eat every single bit.

Also in accompaniment is a good tasting potato salad, with plenty of mayonnaise dressing and lots of yellow mustard, the way my mother used to make it. Plus, there's a pretty tasty, though mayonnaisey, cole slaw. But I've eaten so much ham steak, I can only manage a spoonful of each.

To the pies. A plethora of pies. The case holds about four shelves worth. "See," says a guy at an adjoining table, "you know they're made right here in the restaurant because they are in those glass baking dishes." And golly, he is right!

Not a disposable commercial pie plate in the bunch. The Pyrex Company has done very well here.

The variety offered is staggering: apple, cherry, berry, peanut butter, candy bar pies -- I think I have forgotten a few.

I am sorely tempted by Rhubarb Pie ($2) but finally settle for Lemon Meringue ($2.20). The pastry is flaky and the filling is as light as a feather. A dream.

The Companion goes for Pecan Pie ($2.40) which has fewer nuts and more brown sugar filling than we're accustomed to, but is probably better for that actually. Anyhow, it's terrific.

We are singing "America the Beautiful" by the time we walk out.


* * 1/2

WHERE: Route 16 and 39, Chaffee (496-5125). A landmark family restaurant that keeps long hours and has a large menu. No beer or wine, no credit cards.


NEEDS WORK: Food is of honest down-home quality.

PRICE RANGE: Dinners from $3.95 with potato. Sandwiches from $1.85.


NOISE LEVEL: Moderate.

HOURS: 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday; 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. No reservations.

HEALTHY CHOICES: Charbroiled Chicken Breast Platter, Hot Turkey Sandwich, Julienne Salad Plate.


PARKING: In the lot.


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