A Life: Michael ‘Mickey’ Alafat, 1933-2014; ‘Mickey Was One of Those Characters That You Have in Your Life Now and Again’

Monday, February 03, 2014
Lebanon — Lander’s Restaurant sat on a stretch of Route 120 where today there are car dealerships and Lebanon-to-Hanover traffic. Years ago, though, when the road was quiet, Michael “Mickey” Alafat helped bring it to life.

“That was the place to go,” Barbara Alafat, his wife of more than 30 years, said of the restaurant. “Everybody went there.”

Mickey Alafat, who was known for his love of skiing, dogs and the outdoors as much as he was known for his extremely outgoing personality and time co-owning the restaurant, died on Jan. 7 while spending the winter in New Orleans with his wife and stepdaughter. He was 80.

Lander’s Restaurant was the sort of place where people passed the time; where Lebanon neighbors met one another. For some, it felt like they went to Lander’s every weekend, even if they didn’t.

Chris Ellms remembers the restaurant’s lobby. He remembers walking in, turning left, moving through the dining room. He remembers the curtains on the walls. Lander’s, known for its Lebanese cuisine, was likely where he had his first rolled grape leaf.

“It was certainly a landmark,” said Ellms, who is now the general manager of the Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods. “It was certainly an event to go to Lander’s. But it was frequent enough that I can remember it to this day.”

Alafat went into the restaurant business with his two brothers, Richard and James, in 1966. The brothers’ parents had a Lebanese-style diner closer to the Lebanon mall, said Paul Boucher, the president and CEO of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce. It was located about where The Cave Pub is now, but burned down in the 1964 fire that razed much of downtown.

A couple of years later, the family banded together to start a new restaurant, with the brothers taking the lead.

Mickey Alafat, though, didn’t necessarily expect a career as a restaurateur, his family said. He was born in Burlington in 1933, and moved to the Upper Valley shortly afterward. He played football at Lebanon High School and graduated in 1952. After graduation, he matriculated to the University of New Hampshire, and shortly after married Phyllis Fogg, who had gone to Hartford High School. He left college before graduating to become a frontline radio operator and was stationed in Germany during the Korean War.

After his military service, he returned stateside and received a degree in 1962. From there, he moved on to a job working for Standard Oil in Burlington and Boston. The restaurant career followed.

The building drew inspiration from the brothers’ heritage. Some of the interior design had an Oriental feel, said Terrie Alafat, one of Alafat’s five daughters, and the two large dining rooms were subdivided by Middle Eastern-style dividing screens.

“I see pictures and I think, ‘Gosh, that was so ’60s and ’70s in terms of décor,’ ” she said.

The restaurant quickly became a popular destination. The Alafat brothers split managerial duties. Mickey Alafat took control of the bar.

All of his relatives put in time at the restaurant and that turned into quite a workforce. Alafat had five daughters, and then, after a divorce and second marriage, came into the care of three step-children. His brothers’ children helped as well.

“Mother’s Day, you worked at the restaurant,” said Alafat’s stepson Brent Bell, who met Alafat when he was 8. “New Year’s Eve, you parked cars.”

But Alafat’s real love was the outdoors. While running Lander’s, he plowed the parking lot after snowstorms. In the early 1980s, a few years before the brothers sold the restaurant, Mickey Alafat sold his share and started his own excavation company, Pyramid Construction.

Meanwhile, he began moving his family deeper into the Upper Valley woods, from a Victorian place in Enfield to a house far into Meriden, and each move seemed to get him closer to his ideal living situation. When he bought the Meriden house, Barbara Alafat said, it was partially built and heated by only a wood stove, and “he just thought it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever seen.”

At one point in Meriden, the family owned five horses — he helped get a 4H club for his daughters up and running a few years before — and five dogs, many of which were rescues.

Even as he moved away from the restaurant and the relative bustle of Lebanon, though, he remained inextricably connected to its people. That could be because of his outsized personality, Brent Bell said. Alafat had a habit of telling truths that other people were afraid to tell due to social niceties. And he told them loudly.

“I was a little afraid of him,” said Barbara Alafat of her first impression of the man she’d eventually marry. “He was pretty out there, kind of ‘tell it like it is.’ Being from the Midwest, I wasn’t used to that kind of thing.”

He’d cultivate relationships by picking on people, and navigated the social world of the Upper Valley by sheer weight of personality.

But the ribbing was never meant as serious criticism, his stepdaughter Laura Bell said.

“He wouldn’t understand if it affected them,” Bell said. “It was never meant from a place of anger or hurt. It was never meant to hurt anybody. It was just how he conversed.”

Alafat could actually wield the innate aggressiveness of his communication style to make positive things happen. Brent Bell remembered when he took his stepfather out to Jackson, Wyo., for a ski trip — Alafat loved skiing about as much as he loved dogs, Barbara Alafat said — in the 1990s. One day, Bell and Alafat shared the bus ride to the mountain with a group of loud, obnoxious college-aged men. On the bus ride back, the same guys were there, and drunk.

Bell said they were swearing and intimidating the other riders. He remembered they made a grown man cower.

Instead of keeping quiet, Alafat jumped into the fray.

“Hey, you guys better be careful, because I’m an Arab,” Bell remembered him saying.

There was a tense moment. Oh my God, Bell thought. Am I going to get into a fight?

But the drunk riders began to laugh, and they all began to good-naturedly pick on each other. The attention had been diverted from the innocent riders to Alafat. He diffused the situation by being aggressive.

“He would jump in there, and generally the result was that people would feel more comfortable,” Bell said.

That trip was the first time Alafat had gone skiing outside of the Northeast, but it was far from the first time he had been on the slopes. In fact, Alafat taught all of his kids how to ski and he was a member of the National Ski Patrol for more than 40 years.

He spent much of his time at Enfield’s Whaleback Mountain, patrolling until his 70s. Ellms was the mountain manager there at the time, and remembered nights spent in the base lodge with Alafat.

Sometimes, Alafat would look up and see a young person wipe out on the hill.

“I don’t think he’d even put his skis on,” Ellms said. “He’d go out and pick up the kid and bring him into the base lodge.”

Ellms considered Alafat a sort of father figure, who was blunt and loud but a guiding presence. Brent Bell said he felt the same way, mentioning the 70-mile bike rides the two of them took, and the father-to-stepson knowledge imparted during them.

Before Ellms got to know Alafat on the ski patrol, he often went to Lander’s Restaurant. And during and after the ski patrol years, Ellms had Alafat mow his fields. Alafat was a featured player in his life.

“Mickey was one of those characters that you have in your life now and again that always seems to come back into your life here and there and make an impact,” Ellms said.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

Michael “Mickey” Alafat

1933 — 2014