Zippy the Pinhead & Bill Griffith at O’Rourke’s, 1999
Photo by Larry Cultrera
On August 31, 2006, after a devastating fire and unfortunately, no fire insurance, it looked like the end for one of Connecticut’s if not America’s most beloved diners. But more than likely because of its fame and recognition as well as its loyal clientele, like the mythical Phoenix, O’Rourke’s Diner of Middletown will rise from the ashes and serve old & new patrons within the next few weeks if all goes according to plan. A Hartford Courant article from yesterday by Alaine Griffin had the hopeful news….
Diner’s New Start
Rebuilding Project Nears Completion
By ALAINE GRIFFIN | Courant Staff Writer
January 23, 2008
MIDDLETOWN — – Newly stacked clear glass blocks filter beams of sunlight that hit the bright white walls. Brushed-nickel light fixtures with the manufacturer’s stickers still attached are as shiny as the stainless steel molding. There’s a sparkle these days inside O’Rourke’s Diner. As promised, the community is helping to restore this regional gem that was destroyed by a fire on Aug. 31, 2006.By next month, customers could be eating the restaurant’s signature steamed cheeseburgers.
“He’s still pinching himself,” Jora Davis said recently about his boss, Brian O’Rourke, owner of the 67-year-old downtown diner that O’Rourke took over from his uncle. “He just can’t wait to get back here and make people happy.” When loyal customers and friends of O’Rourke learned that he did not carry fire insurance, many worried that the historic diner would become part of the city’s past. City leaders also worried that the end of O’Rourke’s would mean that Middletown would lose an important anchor in its North End, a section of the city that has struggled with crime, poverty and empty storefronts, but has recently experienced a neighborhood revival with the opening of a new 96-unit apartment complex.
Though O’Rourke — a master chef but self-admitted poor businessman — faced some criticism for his lack of insurance for the diner, supporters with stories about his good deeds and generosity in the community rallied around him and the diner he made into a back-road culinary icon that’s been profiled in books and publications nationwide. Volunteers launched a plan for the estimated $350,000 rebuilding effort with a steady drumbeat of fundraising and the solicitation of building materials and contracting work. Nearly $200,000 was brought in during multiple fundraising events.
Experts and professionals donated their time, O’Rourke’s secured a $200,000 bank loan and the city council voted to give a $25,000 federal community development grant to the diner. Contractors are currently working day and night to finish O’Rourke’s so it can open next month, said Bill Meyers, a superintendent for Kronenberger and Sons Restoration Inc., which is helping oversee the rebuilding effort. Davis, who has worked for O’Rourke for the past seven years, said he’d like the diner to be open in time for St. Patrick’s Day, a historically busy day at the diner when customers from throughout the state would line up to eat O’Rourke’s Irish specialties.
“Brian has the luck of the Irish,” Davis said while washing a tile floor inside the diner as others busily worked around him installing kitchen equipment and pendant lights in the ceiling. But a January breeze through the diner’s door carrying a lingering smoky odor reminds Davis of the night O’Rourke wasn’t so lucky. “Flames were shooting up out of the top. I couldn’t believe it,” Davis said. Investigators determined a hamburger steamer that was left on overnight when the diner was closed triggered the fire. Though contractors were able to preserve the shell of the dining-car style building, the inside was charred. O’Rourke lost just about everything, except for a few cooking utensils and some personal items.
When the diner re-opens, O’Rourke will have things he never had before — central air conditioning, a state-of-the-art ventilation system that sucks 3,400 cubic feet of exhaust per minute, a larger bathroom, and kitchen equipment donated by Wesleyan University. Meyers said if they had to buy the kitchen equipment, it would have cost them $30,000 to $40,000. O’Rourke, 56, said it’s a kitchen he could only dream about before the fire. He said he hopes to have the grills and ovens going by Feb. 11. “I’m going to be like a kid on a playground,” O’Rourke said during a visit Tuesday to the diner, where he said he’s been spending time for the past six months working details like how and where things should be shelved for easy access and flow. Though diners will no longer be able to flip the charts of the boothside jukeboxes, the booths at the diner will be roomier.
The diner will also be open for dinner three nights a week instead of closing at either 1 or 2 p.m., as it had in the past. O’Rourke will rely on some new faces to run the diner like Lance Whalen, a chef for 12 years who will work as a business manager. Old faces, like well-known pony-tailed breakfast cook Larry McArthur, will still be a diner fixture. But McArthur will also have a new look. “Everything’s brand new. A new building, a new kitchen, a new hairdo,” McArthur said Tuesday at the diner where he showed off his new short hair. Greg Garcia of Chester, who did tile work at O’Rourke’s about 20 years ago, is back at the Main Street site with his trowel and grout. Garcia recently studied tile configurations used in old-style dining-car diners. He said he wants the work he’s doing now to look better than the first job. here is a link to the article that has video as well as pictures…Contact Alaine Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit www.courant.com/diner for video and photos from the fire and rebuilding of O’Rourke’s Diner.
Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant