Notes from the Hotline, 3-29-09

More info about NEBA Roast Beef restaurants

I recently got a comment on the blog from Glenn Dispoto of Hollywood, FL. He was referring to my post from Odds and Ends from the Hotline, 7/3/08. This post featured some of my roadside related (non-diner) photos. I ran a photo of a former NEBA Roast Beef restaurant located in Quincy, Mass. now operating as a pharmacy.

NEBA was an early fast food chain that focused on the Roast Beef sandwich (sort of in competition with Arby’s). The chain was based out of Albany, NY and by around 1968 they got into franchising and introduced a unique corporate building style that drew upon McDonald’s influence. The building featured a stylized cow or steers head with ears and horns but in a distinctive almost post-modern shape.

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Although I’m not sure how many were built, from what I have been able to determine,  there are still a few left along the American roadside.  Here is my shot of the Quincy location…

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Debra Jane Seltzer of  www.agilitynut.com has a shot of the former NEBA in Queeensbury, NY (near Lake George) operating as Mr. B’s Best Roast Beef..

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There is also one located at 3504 Washington Boulevard in St. Louis, MO operating as Sunrise Chinese Restaurant. (Courtesy of  B.E.L.T., the Built Environment in Layman’s Terms blog  http://www.beltstl.com/)

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Well, to get back to Glenn’s comment, he informed me there was still one down in Hollywood, Florida located on U.S. Rte.1 (now operating as a Papa John’s Pizza). Here are 2 images courtesy of Glenn, shot just recently. Notice the building has been alterred, the “horns” have been removed above the roof line.

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This just in from Debra Jane Seltzer, a shot of the same building
from directly in front..

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If anyone else sees this and knows of any other former NEBA restaurants, please let me know and if you have photos I’ll post them in a future Hotline.

Jack’s Hollywood Diner

Glenn Dispoto also sent along a photo of Jack’s Hollywood Diner of Hollywood, FL. It is a still operating 1951 vintage Mountain View Diner. It was originally known as Freddie’s Diner depicted here in this postcard image…

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Here is a shot by Glenn as it currently is….

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and here’s a shot by Debra Jane Seltzer from the left side front…

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Thanks again to intrepid road scholar Debra Jane Seltzer and also
Glenn Dispoto of  Hollywood, Florida!

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Camden, NJ’s Elgin Diner in trouble

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Elgin Diner, photo copyright June 1993 by Larry Cultrera

I saw a news item about the Elgin Diner of Camden, NJ last night and it was not good news for this beautiful 1958 vintage Kullman diner. According to the article it said the diner has been closed for some time and that the parking lot behind the diner has become a dumping ground for various items including old analog tv sets, and other trash. It also mentioned that long-time owner George Vallianos had sold the diner a few years ago. I guess this news had not reached me about the sale of the diner and that it had been closed.

The diner which became the Elgin had been in bankruptcy in 1960 when it was bought by George’s dad who reopened it in 1961 giving the diner the name of the quality watch he had on his wrist.

I had visited the Elgin during the Society for Commercial Archeology’s “Diner Symposium” held in June of 1993 during the huge “Bus tour” of the Delaware Valley diners. It was in an extreme state of preservation and the food, service and atmosphere made it a highlight of the tour.

This Diner Symposium was also memorable  due to the fact that it was the first time anything like this had happened. There were an esteemed group of people who gave presentations, (of which I am proud to say I was the lead-off speaker). Other people who spoke included Richard J.S. Gutman, John Baeder, Christine Guedon, and Dr. John Levine. One of the more interesting and entertaining speakers was George Vallianos of the Elgin Diner who spoke pretty much off the cuff about the ins and outs of operating a well run diner.

As I said I have some great memories from my brief visit to the Elgin but one in particular stands out to this day… the photo (taken with my camera) by Al Packard (who bought the old Willow Grove Diner from Pennsylvania and moved it to Bainbridge Island near Seattle, WA) This photo was a close-up of myself, Dick Gutman, John Baeder and George Vallianos (see below).

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L-R, Larry Cultrera, Dick Gutman, John Baeder and George Vallianos
June, 1993 photo copyright Larry Cultrera

Later on I found out that Steve Boksenbaum of Pittsburgh had done a watercolor of the Elgin Diner. I believe I saw it online and I was surprised by what I saw. I was in the painting entering the diner! I contacted Steve and bought a print of the painting (which proudly hangs on my wall).

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Watercolor by Steve Boksenbaum (that’s me with my trademark suspenders going in the front door of the Elgin Diner)

After reading yesterdays article about the Elgin Diner’s current state of affairs, I got to thinking about George and what he was doing. So I looked him up and gave him a phone call. He told me that he sold the diner about 5 and a half years ago due to economic conditions in and around the city of Camden. Even though business was still decent, he decided to sell the diner to interested buyers whom he thought might bring it to the next level if operated properly.

George went on to explain that the two partners who bought the business operated it together for about a year when one of them dropped out for personal reasons leaving the remaining partner to continue. Unfortunately, the diner was closed around August of 2007.

George tells me he  is still in the ‘business” so to speak. He helped to found and operate the Delaware Valley Purchasing Group. This is basically similar to the Pan Gregorian Enterprises out of New York State. Both groups act as a food buying co-op, whose members are usually diner owners as well as owners of other independent restaurants. This helps to keep prices down and increase the bottom line for small businesses which also helps to put them on more equal footing with the large chains who can get similar pricing for supplies due to their ability to buy large quantities.

Here is the link to the CourierPostonline article about the Elgin Diner by Lavinia DeCastro of the Courier-Post Staff….
http://www.courierpostonline.com/article/20090321/NEWS01/903210333/1006

Local Roadside Memories slide presentation postponed

Unfortunately my slide presentation slated for tonight was postponed at the last minute due to a physical plant emergency which basically closed the Medford Public Library for the evening. Barbara Kerr of the Library and also of the Medford Historical Society (who was hosting the program) called me earlier to say that there was a problem and that they were hoping to change the venue to the Medford Historical Society headquarters on Governors Avenue. But with the last minute change apparently they could not get all the details together and decided to postpone & reschedule for a future date.

I hope to know in the next few days when this might happen. Otherwise I will be doing pretty much the same presentation for the Lynnfield Historical Society in May. Stay tuned for future announcements.

Georgetown Diner aka Randy’s Roast Beef aka Fat Boy’s Diner

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Randy’s Roast Beef, photo copyright circa 1981 by Larry Cultrera

Back in late 1980 and early 1981 when I first started documenting diners in northern New England I was basically covering as much ground in the Metro-Boston area as humanly possible (being that I lived here). I was doing a pretty good job of photographing all the diners I knew about but one of them had slipped through my memory banks for a short time.

This was the former Georgetown Diner then currently operating as Randy’s Roast Beef in downtown Georgetown, Mass. It was the next to last diner built by the Worcester Lunch Car Company (No. 849) Only a few miles down Rte. 133 from the wildly popular Agawam Diner in neighboring Rowley, I had forgotten it was there. I certainly did know about it as my good friend Wayne Oblenes grew up in Georgetown and when I first started hanging with him in 1977, I became familiar with the town.

I was at the annual 4th of July cook-out that Scott & Linda Repucci used to host back then (1981) and was conversing with Bob (I can’t recall his last name off the top of my head) a good friend of Scott’s who resided in Georgetown and it was he who reminded me of the diner. I made a trip up Rte. 97 from Topsfield to reaquaint myself with the diner and shot a couple of photos of it.

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Randy’s Roast Beef, photo copyright circa 1981 by Larry Cultrera

During the next year or so I went to Randy’s Roast Beef to have a meal on 2 or 3 occasions. Because it had been operated as a Roast Beef shop the menu consisted of sandwiches, and pizza. The interior was slightly changed to reflect the new operation. This meant raising the countertop (for the right 2 thirds of the length of the counter) to be a take-out type serving counter and removing the stools on that end. The left-hand side of the counter remained with a handful of  stools. The other seating was handled by the 4 booths at the right-hand end of the diner.

The other interior change was that the grill and cooking equipment were removed from behind the counter and all cooking and food prep were done in the rear kitchen. A large pass-through window was cut into the back wall of the diner to accommodate the serving of the food from the kitchen.

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Photos of diner moving circa 1982 courtesy of Georgetown Weekly
(The trailer that was used to move the diner was not strong enough and when it was moved onto the street the tongue on the trailer failed. The diner stayed in the street for at least a day until they could rectify the situation)

In the summer of 1982, Neachos “Nick” Petrakis the owner of Randy’s Roast Beef had a new building built behind the diner to house his new expanded restaurant. He sold the diner to Joe Mello who moved it into storage in Ipswich, Mass. Mello had plans to locate the diner possibly in nearby Middleton, Mass. and reopen it but those plans never came to fruition and the diner sat from 1982 to 1989 on his property on Linebrook Road.

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Georgetown Diner at Ipswich storage location, 1982-89
photo copyright circa 1982 by Larry Cultrera

In 1989, John Keith was buying up old diners and was doing some restoration work and reselling them, basically becoming a diner broker. He bought the Georgetown Diner and moved it to New Hampshire for some restoration. I have a strong memory of visiting the storage site in New Hampshire but cannot find any photos from there, (I wonder if I dreamed it?).

After restoring the diner, Keith moved it out to Los Angeles to try to sell it out there. But after a failed attempt  at marketing  the diner on the west coast he moved it back here and eventually sold it to Trevor Gulliver in London, England to be part of his Fat Boy’s Diner chain. Keith ended up supplying 5 diners to Gulliver, the Georgetown, the former Riverview Diner of Harrisburg, PA, Ted’s Plaza Diner from Jersey City, NJ, the Seagull Diner from Kittery, Maine and the former Boulevard Diner from the Queens section of New York City.

The Fat Boy’s Diner chain lasted a couple of years, maybe 3 and then was sold off. Ironically the last diner operating as Fat Boy’s in London is the former Georgetown Diner. I believe it is at a different location then it originally operated but seems to be very popular. Here is a link to their website where you can see images of it including a great 360 view of the interior (which looks almost like it just came from the Worcester factory!)  http://www.fatboysdiner.co.uk/ you will need a Quicktime Player to look at the 360 interior view.

Newspaper article featuring Mill Pond Diner and Dick Gutman’s Diner exhibit at Culinary Arts Museum

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Mill Pond Diner of Wareham, Mass., photo copyright – Larry Cultrera

A newspaper article appeared in the March 4th edition of Cape Cod Times and capecodonline.com written by Gwenn Friss features the Mill Pond Diner of Wareham, Mass. and an interview with Dick Gutman (for historical perspective) with an extensive mention of the Diner exhibit at the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI.

The exhibit, Diners, Still cookin’ in the 21st Century primarily featuring artifacts from Dick and Kellie Gutman’s extensive collection was originally slated to have a limited run from 2002 to June of 2008. But since Dick is now the Director of the Museum, the exhibit is more or less permanent. Anyway, here is the copy of the article….

Diners through the decades

By Gwenn Friss
March 4, 2009

William Goyette, owner of the Mill Pond Diner in Wareham, tells a story about a woman who came in many years ago for a takeout coffee, but, on learning it was 50 cents, complained that the place down the street sold it for 10.

“Then that’s where you should go,” Goyette told her.

“They’re closed,” she said.

“Oh,” Goyette chuckled. “When I’m closed, I sell it for a nickel.”

Although the incident sounds like a Jack Benny joke, Goyette swears it really happened shortly after he bought the diner 35 years ago.

Either way, the story efficiently summarizes the mission of diners to sell a wide variety of good homemade food, cheaply and quickly, when and where you need it.

In fact, when diners got their start in the late 1800s, they were on wheels. Entrepreneurs would load up sandwich fixings, drinks and a homemade pie or two and head down to the local newspaper office – one of the places that traditionally had a third shift of workers, says Richard J.S. Gutman, author of “American Diner Then and Now” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, revised 2001).

“Street food, sold from little carts or wagons, is everywhere. We have images of coffee wagons in Great Britain. And the American diner did start out as this place that wandered,” Gutman says. “But the homestyle cooking and the wide range of things (on the menu), from a meal down to a snack, is quite different from street food.”

Schooled as an architect at Cornell University in the late 1960s, Gutman took his first diner photo in 1970 and never stopped. Loading his golden retriever, Willie, into his pearl-gray Audi, Gutman would hit the road in search of diners.

“Gas was cheap, time was plentiful, and I’d find a good place and talk to the people there and they’d say, ‘Oh, have you tried this place down the street?’ and I’d go there next.”

Gutman estimates there are about 2,000 diners still operating, most of them in the Northeast where the companies that manufactured diners were located. He included a list in his book.

Although you can’t get a burger or wrecked eggs (scrambled, in diner lingo) there, you can experience the history of the diner in a permanent exhibit Gutman helped create in 2002 at the Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum in Providence. He is now the museum’s director.

Guests walk through an actual diner entranceway into the exhibit which begins in 1872 with Walter Scott of Providence, who is credited with creating the diner business by loading food into a converted horse-drawn wagon.

“It was a great idea and there were immediate competitors,” Gutman says. “Sam Jones moved from Providence to Worcester and, in 1887, built the first wagon customers could go inside.”

The museum has examples of the attention-grabbing colored glass windows originally lit from inside the closed cart by gas lamps. One window would contain the menu: sandwiches, pies, boiled eggs, coffee, milk and cigars. “Pretty much everything was a nickel,” Gutman says.

While the dark windows offered privacy, the atmosphere tended to draw mostly working men. Realizing they were missing out on women and children who could more than double the customer base, diner owners looked to a more open, inviting design that included salads and other light fare. Owners aimed to make counter seats comfortable for women and even put hooks under the counter to hang handbags.

The diner counter was making a sociological impact, Gutman says, because men, women and children were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. In the early to middle years of the last century, that contact was unheard of.

“Diners charged more for table service. Men and women migrated to the counter. Everybody began doing it,” he says. “Stools would be 24 inches on center and you are literally rubbing elbows, especially if you’re asking for the ketchup.”

On July 1, 1941, Arthur E. Sieber received a patent for split diner construction, a prefab option that allowed buyers to customize their diners. The new look was all big windows and hard, shiny surfaces like ones seen in many diners today.

Goyette, who brought the Mill Pond Diner from Providence to its current site (which has boasted one diner or another since the 1930s), spends a lot of time and money to keep his 1953 diner authentic. The original yellow Formica counter is worn at the edges, but still shiny and slick. He recently reupholstered the booths in a vibrant blue, as close to the original shade as he could find. The decades-old Coca-Cola dispenser still works, but it’s used for decoration now. The original four-door stainless steel fridge built into the wall is in use because Goyette had the inside modernized.

The Mill Pond, one of hundreds of diners Gutman has visited, is like other diners in that it helps preserve the history of its community.

“I think that being good at what they do, they know their clientele and they know what to sell. They do seasonal things or rotating specials,” Gutman says. “Diners mirror popular culture, reflect or sometimes even set the trend. The recent trend of eating locally, in terms of a mom-and-pop place getting food that is local, is something diners have always bought into.”

At his place in Wareham, Goyette does what he’s always done: works six or seven days a week; adds seasonal specials like New England boiled dinner to standards like meatloaf; and worries about the bottom line. Glancing at a blackboard that advertises a bowl of beef stew and a roll for $3.99, he sighs, “I keep trying to get them to raise that (price) just a little.”

Learn the lingo

Want to work at an old-fashioned diner? You have to know the language. See if you know the meaning of these expressions a counterman would use when calling out orders:

– Adam and Eve on a raft: two poached eggs on toast

– Adam’s ale: water

– Bossy in a bowl: beef stew (because Bossy was a common name for a cow)

– Sand: sugar

– Seadust: salt

– Breath: onion

– 86: Do not sell that item because the kitchen is out. (May have come from the practice at Chumley’s Restaurant in New York City of throwing rowdy customers out the back door near 86 Bedford St.)

Source: Little Chefs’ Diner at The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales

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Entrance to “Diners, Still Cookin’ in the 21st Century” exhibit at The Culinary Arts Museum, Johnson & Wales University

If you go

What: The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales

Where: 315 Harborside Blvd. on the Providence, R.I., and Cranston city line

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Tuesday through Sunday

Admission: $7 for adults, $6 seniors, $2 ages 5 to 18, free under 5.

More info: http://www.culinary.org or call 401-598-2805.

Review of John Baeder Retrospective Video

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A couple of weeks ago (Ok, maybe it was almost a month ago) I mentioned about the video retrospective on my good friend John Baeder’s career, (see my post from February 5th below). For those of you who do not know John, he is the premier painter of diners, his paintings done in the photorealist style have a photographic quality that  almost decieve the eye. He has been an inspiration to me since the first time I bought and devoured his 1978 book Diners in early 1981. When John updated this book in 1995, I was mentioned around 7 times in the new text.

I first contacted John in early1982, just after my dad passed away suddenly. We became fast friends and have travelled together on occasion. He has even painted at least 4 paintings that came from photos I had shot which make me proud that he appreciates my eye (which he inspired of course).

The video was produced by Curt Hahn and his Film House crew. I received my copy of the DVD on Friday and I have watched it twice already. It is extremely well done and actually makes me long to take a trip down to Nashville and hang-out with my buddy John. I talk with him on occasion and exchange emails often but I have not seen him since October of 2003 when he had an exhibit at O.K. Harris in NYC.

The DVD contains the approx. 35 minute long video, a gallery of over 200 of John’s paintings, a photo gallery of snapshots of John that spans his lifetime and a section showing the books that John has authored as well as one that was written about him. I highly recommend obtaining this DVD. Here is the link to Film House’s website if you want to buy the DVD http://www.filmhouse.com/baeder.php

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John Baeder and yours truly, October 2003 at O.K. Harris in NYC
(“Im wearing my Tommy James and the Shondells Crystal Blue Persuasion t-shirt) CBP is John’s favorite song as well as mine.