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In praise of the Worcester Diner: It’s good to know there are some places that never really change

  • Ed Bergeron, of Chesterfield, N.H., and Dave Sutherland, of Keene, N.H., have lunch at the Hertiage Diner in Charlestown, N.H., on May 16, 2007. It is the oldest Worcester diner in the area. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • The Four Aces Diner is moved from its old West Lebanon location in 1986; it is a Worcester diner. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News

  • Arthur Clough, of Hartland, Vt., gets reday to take his first bite of his hamburger at the Windsor Diner in Windsor, Vt., on March 30, 2012. Clough usually gets the same thing when he is at the diner about once a week: a cup of soup and a burger. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Maureen Currier, of White River Junction, Vt., takes a sip of coffee as her daughter Zophia Hayward naps beside her at the Four Aces Diner in West Lebanon, N.H., on March 3, 2011. They were also visiting Currier's sister, who works as a server. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • The Farmers Diner in Quechee is scheduled to open August 21, 2006, in the Quechee Gorge Village complex in Quechee, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

  • Daily specials at the Windsor Diner in Windsor, Vt., on March 30, 2012. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Presidential candidate Barack Obama pays Tumble Inn Diner waitress Laura Carter for his take out lunch during a stop at the Claremont, N.H., establishment Monday August 13, 2007. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By ALEX HANSON
Published: 6/17/2022 2:00:20 PM
Modified: 6/17/2022 2:29:48 PM

Originally published on May 19, 2007.

When I was in my teens and 20s and in need of escape, I’d go to a diner. I grew up in a former cow town just outside Worcester, Mass., a city where diners constitute the chief social institution, and I spent countless hours in them.

In high school, diners were safe places for my friends and me to hang out. Squeezed into a booth, we could hatch our dubious, often fruitless plans. But during college they meant something else. Higher education has a way of pulling at a person’s roots, at least for someone as rooted as I was. When I came home, I was often as lost as I felt at the marble and gilt college I’d gotten myself into. It’s easy for me to see now that it was a transitional time and that diners were a sort of transitional space, at once welcoming and impersonal. I could sit with a cup of coffee in the evening and write down my scattered thoughts while surrounded by the snap of conversation in my native accent.

The names of those diners are a sort of holy litany for me: the Kenmore, the Boulevard, the Parkway, the Miss Worcester, Charlie’s, Corner Lunch. When I turned 21, I could go to Ralph’s Chadwick Square Diner in Worcester, which was attached to a bar and music club and was a lynchpin in the city’s music scene.

My favorite was the Kenmore Diner. It was open from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m., and by 2 a.m. there was usually a line out the door, mostly of people in search of a plate of eggs and a strong coffee to help them get home from the bars. The Kenmore sat up on a tall foundation underneath the northbound lanes of I-290, the city’s elevated central artery, and backed up to the brick wall of the Worcester Cold Storage warehouse. It was stainless steel and at night it shone like a piece of jewelry in a black velvet box.

The food was almost beside the point but it was good. There were two grills going just to turn out the vast piles of home fries, orange with paprika, doled out onto nearly every plate. The blueberry and corn muffins were rectangular and served grilled with a smear of warm butter.

The Kenmore was a warm and companionable place, but it isn’t my place anymore. After a 1999 fire destroyed the cold storage warehouse, killing six Worcester firefighters, the remains of the building were pulled down onto the diner. It’s been replaced, but I haven’t been back.

Worcester had so many diners — it once had 30 of them — because diners were built there. The Worcester Lunch Car Co., built 650 diners from 1906 to 1956 before finally closing down in 1961. Route 12 rolls through Worcester on its way from Long Island Sound to the Green Mountains, and five Worcester diners are open to the public on or just off Route 12 in the Upper Valley — the Heritage Diner in Charlestown, the Tumble Inn in Claremont, Dan’s Windsor Diner, the Four Aces in West Lebanon and the Farmers Diner in Quechee.

Although there are other diners in the Upper Valley — the Polka Dot Restaurant in White River Junction is a favorite — when I want to rest my arms on a familiar counter, sometimes only a Worcester will do.

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​​​​The Tumble Inn Diner was trucked into Claremont via Route 12 in the fall of 1941. “It took five days,” Deb Kirby, the diner’s owner, told me. She’s researched the diner’s history through old newspaper stories.

Deb Kirby has diners in her blood. Her father owns Daddypops Diner in Hatboro, Penn. She dubbed her diner Daddypops Tumble Inn Diner, but the panels outside still say just “Tumble Inn.” She’s owned it since Jan. 28, 1997.

Inside is a profusion of original blue tiles, a diner done up like an ancient mosque. Above the booths are the original hat racks. Little hand cranks open clerestory windows, a feature usually found on Worcester’s “streamliner” diners, but an anomaly that makes the Tumble Inn a one of a kind. (Farmers Diner is a classic streamliner.)

As I traveled around to the Worcester diners, I found a few things in common. Most of them have their original porcelain refrigeration units, original wooden booths and interior woodwork and original tiling. Most are family run, with kids helping out.

All I knew when I started this story was that I wanted to write about these diners. Sitting at the counter at the Four Aces I wrote in my notebook, “Why do diners seem to be such places of longing?” Nighthawks, Edward Hopper’s famous painting of three people seen through a diner window, is said to depict urban alienation. But that doesn’t describe my visits to diners, where I found a comfortable place to be alone and yet part of the scene. There is something urban about sitting cheek by jowl with strangers, even in the rural Upper Valley.

I turned to diner aficionado Randy Garbin, who lived in Worcester for several years and is the publisher of Roadside Magazine, a publication about diner culture.

“I’ve always said that the experience of eating at a diner, it’s like eating in your best friend’s kitchen,” Garbin said. New England diners tend to produce this feeling more than diners elsewhere. They’re smaller and more intimate, he said, designed as they were for small lots near big factories.

That’s especially true of the diners in Claremont and Windsor, the only two Worcester diners that still have the cook working at a grill behind the counter instead of in a kitchen out back.

Those two diners also seem to share something else — the financial hardship of communities that have lost their industrial might.

“We do a good job and I don’t know why people aren’t coming,” said Fred Borcuk, owner of Dan’s Windsor Diner. Borcuk bought the diner five years ago from the Dan of its name, Dan Kirby, no relation to Deb Kirby. He didn’t want to change the name because cartoonist Bill Griffith had put Dan’s Windsor Diner into his strip, Zippy the Pinhead.

Claremont was one of the only communities in the Upper Valley to lose population between 1990 and 2000. “Claremont, for 10 years I’ve been hearing, ‘It’s going to grow, going to grow, going to grow,’ ” Kirby said. “I’m still waiting.” Even when the economy is weak, people still go out to breakfast, she noted, but the lunch hour can get quiet.

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The sense of frailty I got from some of these diners surprised me. Diners are movable and that makes them at once vulnerable and resilient. They can be moved away, which means people will miss them, goes one view. They can be moved away, so they can find a new customer base and live to fight another day, goes the opposite, more cheerful view.

Moving a diner is expensive and risky, Garbin said. In a new place it’s considered new construction that has to be brought up to code. That doesn’t keep diner owners from dreaming of better locations.

“The thought’s been there,” Deb Kirby said. “I won’t deny it.” The Tumble Inn is on a tiny lot, with only on-street parking around it. “Parking is a huge issue for me,” Kirby said.

Her diner, which she runs with the help of her husband, Jim Kirby, a former Claremont Police officer, is the only one of the five Worcester cars that hasn’t stirred since it was first set down.

The Heritage Diner is the second oldest Worcester in operation, according to Garbin’s book Diners of New England. It was built in the early 1920s, but wasn’t moved to the Upper Valley until 1946. Even Johanna Bacon, whom everyone at the diner calls Mother (she is in fact the mother of the diner’s most recent former owner, Carol St.Pierre) didn’t know where the diner was before it came to Charlestown.

That was the year that the Farmers Diner was built. It began life as the Ross Diner in Holyoke, Mass. It sat next to several huge companies, open 24-7, but when the industries went, so did the diner. It came to the Upper Valley in 1990, first to Lebanon, then to Quechee, and was rechristened Yankee Diner. It’s one of the largest and most luxurious diners Worcester Lunch Car ever built, according to an article from the Worcester Daily Telegram from March 9, 1946, a copy of which was provided to me by Gary Neil, the diner’s owner. The Farmers Diner opened there last year, said Tod Murphy, who owns the restaurant business.

Dan’s Windsor Diner first opened only a short ride up Route 12 from Worcester, in Fitchburg in 1952. There had been a diner at the site on Main Street in Windsor. A photograph dated October 1937 shows a pair of Worcester diners crammed together, a sort of foot-long hotdog for a bustling industrial town. Another photograph that Borcuk keeps at the diner showed the same scene in 1939, but a caption calls the diner two Worcester and Rutland rail cars. I couldn’t find any evidence of a Worcester and Rutland Railroad.

The Four Aces Diner, delivered to West Lebanon in 1952, is the newest of the five Worcester diners. Worcester Lunch Car numbered its diners from 200 to 850. I couldn’t find a number for the Heritage Diner, which for years was obscured by the siding of the building it was attached to. Farmers Diner is No. 751, the Tumble Inn is No. 787, Windsor Diner is No. 835 and the Four Aces is No. 837.

If I had to make something of these numbers it would be that diners came relatively late to the Upper Valley. If the first diner was the original Tumble Inn in 1927, and the second was the original Windsor Diner, then Claremont and Windsor seem to have a lock on the area’s diner history.

Neither the Four Aces nor the Farmers Diner was ever intended to serve a population of factory workers. The Four Aces sat at the corner of Main and Dana streets for 32 years. It was a good location, said Dot Gomez, who ran the diner from 1965 to 1985 while her husband, the late Phil Gomez, worked as a trucker. “Everything that went to Vermont had to go through there,” she said, speaking of an era that ended with the coming of the interstates.

In 1986, owners Phil Mans and James Burnham moved the diner down the hill on Bridge Street and sold the land for a bank branch. Rick Clark, a burly Harley-rider who used to be in construction, has owned the diner since 1998. (It’s the only one of the five that still has its Worcester Diner clock, a stainless steel rectangle with a red face.)

Gary Neil said that bringing in Farmers Diner to his 8½ acre Quechee Gorge Village complex fit with his belief that a retail business out in the country has to be a destination. “You must constantly reinvent yourself,” Neil said.

Diners are moved and restored more often than they are reinvented. Neil consulted with diner expert Richard Gutman to make sure his 1946 streamliner was being restored correctly 15 years ago. The Farmers Diner’s hook is its use of locally raised and locally made products. Where most diners try to provide low prices, Farmers Diner charges a bit more so it can give back to the farmers who provide the bacon and eggs.

All five of the Worcester diners are destinations for diner enthusiasts, but the Worcester Lunch Car Co., set out to feed the American worker. How long can the diner survive without droves of workers queuing up at the sound of the lunch whistle? So far, at least, a long time.

While there’s a future in the concept, Garbin said, “the industry of building prefab diners is all but dead.”

The Heritage Diner is attached to a giant restaurant and pub. (Only the Tumble Inn lacks a supplementary dining room.) When I went there for lunch, only a few people, all men, sat in the diner, while the adjacent restaurant was crammed with tables of women in groups of four or five.

“I think it’s busier in here for breakfast because you can talk to people,” said Richard Cahill, a native of County Sligo, Ireland, who has owned the Heritage Restaurant and Diner with his wife Sarah, a Charlestown native, since March 14. “Weekends a lot of people come into the diner too,” he said.

The Heritage, narrower and more worn than the later Worcesters, once had a row of tables for patrons to stand at. The diner is spare, almost ghostly when it’s empty. Almost a century’s worth of people have walked its hexagonal tiles and rested their arms on the cool granite countertop.

That’s true of all the diners. “You can see that many an elbow has been on these counters,” Fred Borcuk said while his daughter Theresa, who runs his place, cooked him a grilled cheese and ham for lunch.

I had been to all but one of these diners before I decided to write about them. Just after college I lived alone for a year in South Woodstock and often drove down to the Windsor Diner for a meal. I still go to the Polka Dot, which has a grill behind the counter, and is as homey a diner as ever dished up two over-easy with rye toast, even if it wasn’t built in Worcester.

Although diners don’t mean the same thing to me that they used to, they don’t lack meaning. I like that they’re democratic — the seats at the counter are the same height for everyone. There are friendly faces to greet people. I don’t need a refuge these days, but it’s nice to know that if I ever want one, there are at least five to choose from, ready to welcome me with a cup of coffee and a place in the crowd.




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