This piece originally ran in the “hard copy” printed version of Diner Hotline in the Spring 2007 Issue of the SCA Journal Magazine. I decided to resurrect the story in it’s unedited version with some additional photos and updated info for my online readers.
U. S. Route 20 is one of the oldest cross continent highways (and currently the longest) going from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon. Located on Rte. 20 about 30 miles or so west of Boston lies the City of Marlborough (aka Marlboro). In my 28 plus years of diner research, I have collected quite a few old post cards depicting street scenes in some cities and towns of New England showing lunch wagons. I have at least 4 that show lunch wagons in Marlboro and there have been quite a few diners located within the city limits since the late 19th century as well.
Possibly the most famous is Lamy’s Diner which was located just off Rte. 20 at the corner of Maple Street and Main Street in the late 1940’s. Since 1988, the fully restored Lamy’s Diner has been a key component in “The Automobile in American Life” exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Lamy’s Diner at the Henry Ford Museum
Up until recently Marlboro still had 2 diners, the former White City Diner, Worcester Lunch Car No. 802 now operated as the Tropical Cafe just off Main Street on Rawlins Avenue and the currently closed Boston Trolley Diner, a 1950’s vintage stainless steel O’Mahony. (note: the Boston Trolley Diner which started out life as Vargis Diner in Everett, Mass. was located on Rte. 20 a few miles east of downtown Marlboro. Since I originally wrote this that diner has had a fire and was eventually sold and moved to Chatanooga, TN.)
White City Diner in Marlboro
The former Boston Trolley Diner in Marlboro
Following Rte. 20 from the Boston Trolley Diner west into Marlboro you are on the part of Rte. 20 designated East Main Street which eventually makes a left turn and then a right turn to join Main Street in downtown, (to the left of this intersection was the former location of Lamy’s). In the early 1980’s across from where you take the right to join Main Street, there was a small building that housed a restaurant called Steve’s Place.
I remember this as being a very small, bright red Worcester diner that I had a meal at circa 1973. Within the next 7 years it had been enlarged and covered over (as my early 1980’s photo shows below). In my research for this piece I talked with an acquaintance, Don Haitsma who is a regular customer of Chet’s Diner in Northboro (just west of Marlboro on Rte. 20). Don recalled Steve’s Place was at one time known as Skook’s Diner, (this fact was verified by a clerk at a Marlboro convenience store/Mobil gas station recently).
Steve’s Place, formerly Skook’s Diner circa 1981
Former location of Skook’s Diner, Lamy’s was originally located a couple of lots to the left just out of the photo.
This info is a prelude to a unique family connection I have to diner history in Marlboro. In the past I have mentioned how my longtime fascination with diners started in the mid-to-late 1950’s. My dad (Sam) was a huge early influence and source of knowledge in my burgeoning obsession. Even though I credit my dad a lot for fostering my passion for diners, I cannot overlook my mother (Millie) in all this. Over the years ma would mention every now and then about going to her cousin Tony’s diner when she was a young girl.
This diner (Tony’s Cafe) was located on Main Street in Marlboro. Shortly after dad passed away in 1982, my mother dug out a circa 1930 photograph of her cousin’s diner to show me. I immediately recognized the building as a place I had passed numerous times in the prior 2 or 3 years of diner hunting trips as a place called D’Antonio’s Diner. I had never photographed it as to my eyes, this was not a factory-built diner but something that was built on site, (I was sort of a diner-snob then).
Tony’s Cafe circa 1930 all decked out for the Massachusetts Bay Tercentenary
Former location of Tony’s Cafe (D’Antonio’s Diner)
Upon closer examination of this old photo I noticed some detail that I could not ignore. Embedded in the front wall of this small narrow building with a peaked roof was the remains of a horse drawn lunch wagon! I was startled to say the least. This was an amazing example of a rare and vital historical link in the evolution from lunch wagons to diners.
I immediately went to my post card collection and extracted 2 old sepia photo cards published by Underwood & Underwood showing the Monument Square area at the junction of Main Street, West Main Street and Mechanic Street in Marlboro. The views dating from the 1920’s (my best guess) show from two different angles a lunch wagon in the approximate same spot that Tony’s Cafe (later D’Antonio’s Diner) was to occupy.
First post card view showing the lunch wagon that would become Tony’s Cafe (to the right of the automobile behind the park in the distance. Below is a close-up view of the wagon.
Second post card view from opposite angle, the lunch wagon is on the left. Below is the close-up.
Comparing the details of the post cards and the 1930 picture of Tony’s, it was obvious that a window and wall section replaced the original door to the lunch wagon while the window and wall section on the extreme right side of this same elevation had been removed along with the right end wall of the lunch wagon. These were replaced by a “slash-corner” door and shorter side wall with one window that fit under the pedimented front overhang of the new building.
A couple of days later, I decided to take a ride out to Marlboro to revisit D’Antonio’s. On the drive out to Marlboro I noticed that Steve’s Place was torn down and it looked like they were building a new road where the diner had been. I thought, oh too bad, they tore down the old diner! Little did I know what was waiting for me in Monument Square. Yes that’s right, the road they were building came out onto Route 20 where D’Antonio’s had been. I was stunned, two old diners gone in one fell swoop in the name of progress!
According to Marcia Josephson, a clerk at the Administration and Engineering office of the Marlboro Dept. of Public Works, this Route 20 bypass around downtown Marlboro called Granger Boulevard had been in the works for a while. The City authorized land taking by eminent domain in 1981. Construction of the project was in 1982 and 1983, which would coincide with my little trip to check out D’Antonio’s.
I recently corresponded via email with my mother’s cousin John Gonnella who has lived in the Los Angeles area since the 1950’s. John’s dad was “Tony” of Tony’s Cafe and he provided some background; ……..
“As to my dad’s cafe, I remember he purchased it from a guy named Moriarity. I have records showing my dad arrived at Ellis Island on October 19, 1921 on the ship Giuseppi Verde. He went to live with one of his sponsers in Marlboro and went to night school in order to get his citizenship. I have diplomas from 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925.
He went to work cooking for another cafe, I think Modern diner around the corner from the cafe that he was to buy in the near future. After he worked at the Modern diner for a few years he then purchased the cafe, I’m guessing now, but I think it was around 1928 and then re-named it Tony’s Cafe.
My mother would get in at 4 in the morning and get things ready to open up at 5 a.m. along with one other cook. My dad would go into work about 10 a.m and worked the cafe until closing at 2 a.m., clean up the cafe and get home about 4 a.m. Long hours.
In 1945 he was having pains in his chest and stomach which at first they diagnosed as an ulcer. Later in the year he went to the Lahey Clinic in Boston and they diagnosed it as cancer and nothing could be done because it had gone too far.
Around October 1945 he sold the business (not the diner/property) to Joe D’Antonio because he was getting too sick. He passed away at home on January 13, 1946. My mother passed away on October 4, 1953 and the cafe property stayed in the estate until around 1956. At that time the executor asked me if I was ever going to consider going back to Marlboro to work the cafe and I told him no. He had a buyer for the property, the same guy who was running it, Joe D’Antonio” (who continued to operate it into the early 1980’s when it was taken for the Granger Boulevard project).
I followed up with a phone call to John after this initial email and during the conversation he informed me he had a couple of interior photos of Tony’s Cafe. I was immediately excited about this and asked him to get me copies, which he was kind enough to do (see below).
Interior of Tony’s Cafe, circa late 1920’s. That’s Tony Gonnella behind the counter. Photo courtesy of John Gonnella.
Interior of Tony’s Cafe possibly taken right after the end of prohibition as there are signs advertising Beer. There is Tony and his wife Rena standing in the middle of the photo. Photo courtesy of John Gonnella.
So although I was a little too late to physically revisit my family connection to diner history, through post cards and photos as well as the above reminisces of John Gonnella, I have at least been able to piece together the story.