Wet walnuts, that was the key. The cold, frosted stainless steel of the sundae dish provided the context, and the ice cream itself, either chocolate or vanilla (back then the most gourmet flavor was perhaps the plasticy Rocky Road, available only at Baskin Robbins), was the body.
But it was the wet walnuts, a goopy, drippy concoction of walnut chunks and syrup that was the crowning glory of a Gruning’s sundae. Asking for the wet walnuts on the sundae was always a fleetingly risque move, as if an entire lifetime’s abuse of junk food was concentrated into one dollop of nutty glucose. Even as a 10 year old ordering this manna, I knew it was straight-up decadence.
There were two Gruning’s restaurants nearby. One, in South Orange village, was the older, original establishment. I didn’t go there often, but I do remember it having a double wrap-around soda counter.
My Gruning’s was the one “on the hill”; a flattned outcropping off a steep curve of South Orange avenue. The building was an unremarkable one-story elongated box, but a gambrel roof gave it a homey touch. On the inside, a lunch counter ran its length. To the back was the dining room overlooking the edge of the steep ridge.
The peculiar orientation of Gruning’s meant it was easily accessible from my street. Woodhill Drive was a steep road below the ridge, ending in a dead-end at the base of the South Mountain Reservation.
The shortcut to Gruning’s was simple; walk to the top of Woodhill and cut behind the top house’s backyard. From there, you scaled a steep embankment, pulling on saplings and low-hanging branches for leverage. Surmounting this hill put you right into Gruning’s parking lot.
Since Gruning’s was a full-scale restaurant, we didn’t make this trip as often as you might think; certainly not as much as the Candy Store a few blocks away. But the occasional safari to Gruning’s was always a treat. I recall one time going there with a sack of pennies to buy a candy bar at the cash register. I can still see the face of the cashier, humorously incredulous having to count 50 or so pennies for this resourceful kid.
In high school, Gruning’s became more of a proper “hangout”. Not only would we go there for ice cream, but their menu of greasy burgers and fat, scalding fries were a staple. I always had a sense of the history, they had pictures on the walls of the place in the 50s and such. We liked to take booth seats by the big windows facing the ridge, and the heavy concrete foundation provided a deep, solid shelf for a favorite parlor trick of mine, the balancing salt shaker.
My parents divorced in 1985. For years my brother had been collecting fallen road signs and hanging them up in his attic hangout. Stop signs, one way, yield, school crossings, you name it. When it came time to clean out the house, he came upon an interesting idea; he wanted to return all the signs to the town, but, for obvious reasons, anonymously. So he wrote up a note to the town, apologizing for the years of petty theft. We pulled down the signs, trudged them down three flights, and loaded them into the car (road signs are a lot bigger and heavier than you might imagine).
We drove up the hill around 11pm and pulled into Gruning’s lot. The restaurant itself had long been closed, it was a depressingly sad shell. We took out the signs and arranged them along a fence that edged the drop off we once climbed. It looked like a flea market. We taped the note to one of the signs and drove off, hoping for the best.
The very next morning we drove by, and the signs were gone. We never learned if the town got them back, or some other scavenger made off with the bounty.
Gruning’s came back into my life one last time. A few years after college, I had started a design business in South Orange village with a friend. I don’t recall how we got the gig, but somehow we managed to secure an meeting with the owner of Gruning’s in his office at the back of the village restaurant. He talked big about us getting a lot of work from him, he thought we were scrappy, talented kids.
Truth is, we were just starting out, so these empty platitudes made our eyes wide. We ended up doing exactly one project for him; a large stand-up sign for a trade show, where he was hawking Gruning’s hot fudge sauce. The design was taken from the label, showing a silhouette of people inside the windows of an old fashion ice cream parlor. I drew the image, and had it blown up huge at a local sign shop.
The sign must not have helped much; Gruning’s was soon sold off, and the one on the hill was torn down and turned into an ugly apartment building.