The choo-choo is chugging and the country-fried steak is sizzling once again at the Train Depot restaurant.
The favorite Fresno breakfast and lunch spot reopened last week in a new location at 3045 E. Ashlan Ave., near First Street. It had been closed since April, when a fire turned its previous location in the Mayfair Shopping Center to a pile of charred rubble.
The fire was a tragedy for the owner and customers of the more-than-30-year-old restaurant. But the outpouring of support that followed was thick as the gravy on a biscuit.
Customers were waiting outside the new restaurant before 6 a.m. on its first day open.
"People love it," says owner Pat Escovedo. "I was worried they were going to compare it to the old."
The new place looks a lot different but many things are still the same.
The train-theme decor is back, with the new restaurant re-creating the ticket booth and getting a new train that chugs around the top of the dining room. The train runs past paintings on the wall by Tom Terranova. Scenes of Fresno pay homage to firefighters, baseball players and city workers who are regulars at the diner.
Customers have been bringing in train decor almost every day. Some of them are almost family heirloom level, like the plates with trains on them brought in by former railroad workers. The plates are honors the workers get every 10 years for working for the railroad.
"It's amazing they would trust me with them," Escovedo says.
A train clock painted above a booth honors one of the former owners, who had hung a clock on the wall in the old place. It burned, too, so Escovedo had an image of it recreated, this time with the woman's name painted on it.
The menu is the same, with the corned beef hash and country-fried steak the most popular dishes. The Tuesday meat loaf special is still pulling in people who love it, served with mashed potatoes and cobbler made from whatever fruit is in season.
But perhaps the most familiar image is Escovedo herself, hustling between tables with her short, cropped blonde hair. She starts many of her sentences with "You know, babe," and is quick to hug her customers.
After the fire she had vowed to reopen the restaurant in the same spot. But rebuilding would have taken too long and Escovedo, who was paying her cooks while the restaurant was closed, was getting worried about money.
The cooks, by the way, have worked there for 27 and 31 years.
"They're the ones that kept me going," she said.
So the new restaurant reopened last week in the former Fresno Breakfast House space, open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. It's got all new kitchen equipment and a bright new coat of paint. Despite Escovedo's fears, customers have embraced the new place.
It's still a work in progress, Escovedo says, but it's getting there.
"Give it a month and you won't even know the difference," said regular customer Jim Gravelle. "It's the people. It's not the decor."
He and his wife, Nicole, were lost when the first place burned. Nicole cried.
But last week they were back, chatting away with Escovedo like she was family. Nicole had her chicken melt and Jim had his patty melt add jalapeños. They didn't even mind having to wait a little to get a table.
"It's what she needs," he said.
For details, find the Train Depot on Facebook or call (559) 442-1401.
And speaking of breakfast, Fresno now has a second Waffle Shop restaurant.
The restaurant opened about a month ago in the former Batter Up space at 4025 W. Figarden Drive. (If you recall, that Batter Up location closed, but the Cedar and Nees avenues Batter Up is doing lots of business).
Waffle Shop is owned by the same Sacramento owner who has the Waffle Shop on Blackstone Avenue. The new location is open 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
It specializes in waffles, of course, including classic waffles, strawberry-almond waffles, bacon waffles with bacon inside and on top, even gourmet waffles with strawberries and vanilla ice cream. There's other breakfast and lunch dishes, including sandwiches, burgers and chicken-fried steak.
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6431, firstname.lastname@example.org or @BethanyClough on Twitter. Read her blog on fresnobeehive.com.