A Visit to the Student Prince: In Praise of Restaurants that Last
“I’ve been coming here for 50 years!” my dad announces as we sit in the back dining room of The Student Prince in Springfield. The waiter smiles. I’m sure it’s not the first time he has heard that. Looking around, I see a crowd that my grandmother, Rose, would have described in her northern Italian dialect as “tüt gris.” All gray. The seniors who make up most of today’s lunch crowd have probably also been coming here for just as long.
For me, it hasn’t been 50 years, but a few decades still. I remember hearing the stories of my parents’ early dates here, and feeling a child’s wonder at the sight of giant Christmas tree in the main dining room. I remember driving to from our home in Windsor, wearing dresses for big family dinners with my grandparents and aunts and cousin Madeline. Learning to ask for wiener schnitzel and eating the pumpernickel bread with pats of foil-wrapped salty butter, and feeling very grown-up when I finally developed a taste for the salad with Roquefort dressing that all the adults loved.
My sister and I must have ordered Shirley Temples because it was the Seventies and that was our special restaurant drink. And always Indian pudding or chocolate ice cream for dessert.
The rooms are almost exactly the same today, with the old booths in the bar (the Student Prince is technically the bar portion of the restaurant, while The Fort is the dining establishment, but we’ve only ever called it The Student Prince). The stained glass windows and wood paneling haven’t changed. The restaurant’s stein collection, now grown to more than 1600, lines the walls in nearly every room. Twice a year, a select group of staff members take everything down and wash it by hand.
Even the same Maifest decorations are up today, with wide ribbons turning the central column of the main dining room into a sort of May pole.
We are here for a rare family lunch. The grandparents and great-aunts are gone. My sister lives a few hours away in upstate New York. But we’ve brought another generation of children who will come here once in a while to eat the pumpernickel bread and order hot dogs until they’re ready to try the weisswurst. I can no longer walk in the back door of my grandmother’s house and sit at her kitchen table. But I can come here.
My father once told me that, as a young private stationed in Germany in the 1950s, he nearly got drunk on the strawberries floating in his May Wine. I order a glass for us to split, tasting how the alcohol concentrates in the fruit.
We all have the salad with Roquefort, I get the beef with onion gravy and a cucumber salad on the side. Indian pudding for dessert.
It is not, if I’m honest, the best pot roast I’ve ever had. Some meals here are a marvel, others merely passing. But there are many different ways to be fed. A restaurant that can survive for so long, weaving through childhood, outlasting even a grandmother’s kitchen. It seems like almost a miracle.