Skip’s Restaurant of Chelmsford, Mass. closes for good

As I reported earlier this year, Skip’s Restaurant a longtime local landmark was slated to close this summer. An article from yesterday’s Lowell Sun featured a very nice report on the restaurant’s final day of operation. Here is the text of that article written by Rita Savard, (rsavard@lowellsun.com)

 

Skip’s was good to the last drop

CHELMSFORD — The room looks unremarkable.

Brown paneled walls and a worn Formica countertop. Waitresses shuttling plates of eggs and pouring bottomless cups of coffee. Just another humble greasy spoon. But listen closely. Above the clatter of silverware, scattered conversations and John Lennon singing “Watching the Wheels” over the radio, something bigger stirs. “These walls hold over a million stories,” said Fred Gefteas, co-owner of Skip’s in Chelmsford. “Today they’re talking.”

Gefteas and partner George Burliss fired up Skip’s grill for the last time yesterday, and the old Worcester dining car exhaled 62 years of memories. “This place is like a Bible for a lot of people,” said Rusty Simpson of Billerica. “We’ll be lost without it.” Skip’s is to Chelmsford what Durgin Park is to Boston, a restaurant where floorboards creak, the food tastes like mom’s cooking, and the breakfast counter outdates your grandfather. Gefteas and Burliss wouldn’t have it any other way. It means the building is more than bricks and wood, what even a wrecking ball can’t kill.

In 1946, Fred Gefteas Sr. gave up his small grocery store, Gefteas Market in Lowell, to buy Kydd’s diner and a neighboring ice-cream stand on 116 Chelmsford St. “My father couldn’t fry an egg when he started,” Gefteas said. Gefteas Sr. enlisted the help of his cousin, Steve Burliss, who had run a diner at Weirs Beach on Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H., and a luncheonette in the Giant Store in downtown Lowell. Thinking some people might have trouble pronouncing a Greek name like Gefteas (sounds like Jeftis), Gefteas Sr. and Steve Burliss came up with Skip’s, a nickname for Steve’s oldest son, Peter.

A few years later, Gefteas Sr. was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Before long, he was confined to a wheelchair. “I don’t remember him walking at all,” Gefteas says. “But it never stopped him from working.” Steve Burliss was Gefteas’ legs, taking care of the organized chaos on the floor. Gefteas was Burliss’ peace of mind, handling the bills and paperwork. For nearly 53 years, Gefteas Sr. was “the face of Skip’s,” greeting guests behind the pastry counter. “He eventually made a pretty good egg, too,” Gefteas said.

Skip’s family grew. In the summer of ’69, Burliss and his dad watched a man walk on the moon in the kitchen via a grainy black-and-white TV. Gefteas was mixing grasshoppers and pink swirls in the Embers Lounge when President Nixon resigned in 1974. On Sept. 11, 2001, about 100 people cried in the lounge as the World Trade Center towers fell. “We’re family here,” said waitress Helen Braiser. “When we laugh together we laugh hard, when we cry together, we’re still together and that helps a lot.” Gefteas and Burliss took over from their fathers in 1989. Customers’ kids had become parents. People moved in different directions. “But you never forget your hometown,” Gefteas said. “There are always going to be things you want to come back for.”

For Paul Douglass, it’s a hot roast-beef sandwich on toast. He drove all the way from Knoxville, Tenn. “I started coming here in high school,” said Douglass, now 66. “Skip’s was the place to go.” By lunchtime yesterday, Skip’s menus and memory books filled with photos and classic recipes moved as fast as the cream pie. A customer found out the restaurant was closing and called Burliss in a panic. “I need two quarts of gravy, one to freeze until Thanksgiving and the other until Christmas,” she said.

A couple of weeks ago, the restaurant started closing its doors at 5 p.m. for the first time in 62 years. Gefteas’ daughter, Melissa, drove by the dark building. “She said, ‘Dad, I just wanted to give the place a big hug because it’s given me everything I have,’ ” Gefteas said. In May, Gefteas and Burliss told the staff they would close. They wanted to give them enough time to find new jobs. No one left.

Under the neon Skip’s sign, a banner reads: “Thank you Chelmsford for many wonderful years.” A framed photo of a smiling Gefteas Sr. faces the swinging doors, watching over the customers and the waitstaff. And especially over his boys. After the last Skip’s special is served, Gefteas and Burliss take a long look around. They see the crowd, hear spoons clanking on coffee cups and smell perfect bacon frying. They see Gefteas Sr. ringing orders and Steve Burliss pacing. It looks remarkable. Gefteas picks up the picture of his father from behind the pastry case. “C’mon, Pop,” he says. “It’s time to go home.” He turns off the lights.

Goodbye Skip’s, we’ll miss you! (comment by Larry Cultrera)