Closing of local diner marks end of an era
MIDDLEBURY — Joyce Sargent can’t travel past The Diner at 66 Merchants Row in Middlebury without thinking of family, food, an occasional good ribbing and the birth of her second child.
“From as far back as I can remember my dad went to (what was then Smith’s Park Restaurant) and met his cronies for coffee and a doughnut or toast every morning around 6 a.m., and mom always wondered why,” Sargent said playfully through an email recounting some of her fondest memories of the community eatery, which will close for good this Sunday, May 27.
Sargent eventually found out “why” her dad was so attached to the place after becoming a regular customer herself around 30 years ago, hooked by a steady diet of stick-to-your ribs standards and a cast of employees that served up kind words and occasional good-natured sass along with the meatloaf, steak & eggs and pancakes — with, of course, real maple syrup.
College professors, store keeps and farmers sitting elbow to elbow over omelets and a good cup of Joe.
“The sad part is that as of the end of May the diner will no longer be,” Sargent lamented. “This is also the 18th anniversary of my retirement — so what in the world am I going to do?”
Sargent and others took some time out early this week to reflect on the impending demise of The Diner, which current owners Carl Roesch and Caetlin Harwood are selling to the Town Hall Theater. The adjacent THT will someday clear the site for a building addition to provide more room for theater programs, storage and maybe even a small restaurant. But faithful customers of The Diner — and of previous incarnations of the eatery that dates back some 80 years — said it will be the end of an era when the business closes its doors for the final time.
The restaurant’s equipment will be offered up for sale on premises on Memorial Day, from noon to 4 p.m.
Harwood said more than 15 customers in recent weeks have regaled her with stories about what the restaurant has meant to them through the years. Many of those customers have made The Diner their adjunct kitchen as much for the complementary conversation and emotional support as for the food itself.
“The staff … had great relations with most of our customers,” recalled Sarah (Dow) Provoncha, whose parents, Steve and Beth Dow, owned and operated the restaurant as Steve’s Park Diner for around 25 years before selling it to Roesch and Harwood in 2014.
“Most locals that came in regularly were known by name, and some people didn’t even need to place an order because nine times out of 10, your order was already started,” added Provoncha.
Eric Davis, Middlebury College professor emeritus of political science and an Addison Independent columnist, was one of those regulars. He ate breakfast at Steve’s Park Diner pretty much every weekday from 2006 to 2014. Steve’s was on his way to his office at the Gamiliel Painter House just up the hill on Court Square. His order of two eggs, toast, home fries and orange juice would be started the moment he walked in the door.
Along with good food, reasonable prices and great service, Davis enjoyed seeing lots of familiar people who had come in for the same reasons.
“It was a real gathering spot for the town,” he recalled. “It’s part of Middlebury’s history, which we’re losing.”
It was a big part of Provoncha’s history. Her parents bought the restaurant when she was 7 years old, so she pretty much grew up there. She waited tables and then worked in the kitchen. One of her co-workers, Jared Provoncha, would become her husband. They’ve been married for almost 12 years and now have an 18-month-old daughter, Paislee.
“I will say that the last day I left the diner was very emotional for me, but the day it gets torn down will be heartbreaking,” she said. “I literally grew up there and will be sad to no longer see the building there anymore, but I know the memories and stories will make it live on for years to come.”
Those memories are priceless.
They include “football Fridays,” when the Middlebury Union High School Tiger football team would come in for their weekly breakfast before their game. That tradition, Provoncha believes, started around the 1995 season when the team went 11-0 and won the state championship, and continued right up until the restaurant changed hands.
Another Steve’s tradition: Feeding Middlebury College seniors the morning of commencement after they’d been up all night.
“The staff always dreaded this morning because it was always an adventure,” Provoncha recalled.
Many of the students were still suffering from the effects of having imbibed a little too much of “granddad’s cough syrup” the night before. Some passed out in the restaurant booths. Others dashed outside to lose last night’s dinner before taking a stab at today’s breakfast.
Then-Middlebury College President John McCardell sweetened the deal around 12 years ago when he announced the institution would pay for graduating seniors’ commencement day breakfasts at Steve’s. And during his last year as president, McCardell joined the students for a hearty morning meal on graduation day, according to Provoncha.
“He presented the staff with Middlebury College T-shirts as a thanks for the commencement breakfast mornings,” Provoncha recalled.
Harwood has heard similarly interesting stories about the restaurant.
Such as the paper boy who would trade a copy of the Rutland Herald to one of the former owners in return for a cup of coffee and a side of hash.
“One woman started coming to The Diner decades ago when her mother began chemo and in an attempt to lay eyes on her and determine what her actual condition was, they would meet here for a morning coffee,” Harwood said of another client. “That was 20 years ago, and the two still meet for coffee every morning.”
Sargent recalled the days when her dad, the late Leon Turner, spent so much time at the restaurant that it got him into some hot water at home.
It was snowy January of 1959, and Sargent was pregnant with her second child. She and her husband lived in Bristol at the time, and her physician suggested they temporarily move into her parents’ house in Middlebury to enhance their chances of getting through a blizzard to Porter Hospital in time for a safe delivery. Snow plowing, she noted, wasn’t as reliable in those days.
Well, wouldn’t you know, Sargent’s dad was having coffee at the diner the morning of Jan. 16 when the baby decided to arrive. There was a roaring blizzard outside and dad had the truck with the chains. So the Sargents had to take their chances with the vehicle they had.
“We took off, but did not make it up the hill on the first try, so that meant backing down to the bottom and as far up the hill behind us as we could go to get a really good head start,” she recalled. “That time we just barely made it over the top, and to the hospital. I had just enough time to get up to the top floor of Porter Hospital and in a room when Susan made her appearance into my world. The blizzard went on for another day or two, but my dad got grief about going to the diner every morning for a lot longer than that.”
Gary Baker has been a customer at the restaurant for around a half century, eating there at least two or three times per month. Like others, he enjoyed the home-style cooking, the staff and the “friends, acquaintances and pleasant people.”
Baker said he’s sad the downtown soon won’t have a traditional diner.
“It seems to me Middlebury should be able to support a diner,” he said.
Davis finds the closing of the diner worrisome, especially when placed in context with other recent business trends and an ongoing rail bridges project that will affect the downtown for the next three years. He noted the Ben Franklin store on Main Street — another business with a long history — will close this August.
“I’m concerned about what’s happening to the economic base of the downtown,” Davis said. “It’s becoming professional offices, municipal offices and boutique-type stores for special purchases.”
Davis is a member of the Neighbors Together citizens group that’s working on ways to keep the downtown a destination point during the rail bridges project.
Beth Dow will carry many memories from the family’s ownership of the restaurant. She’s proud of her daughter for having moved from busing tables to food prep in the kitchen, which in turn laid a strong foundation for her culinary career.
If you were a regular customer at Steve’s, you were like family, according to Dow.
“If someone didn’t show up for a few days, we’d check on them,” Dow said.
Many of the Steve’s Park Diner staff stayed with the restaurant through the Dows’ ownership of the business.
Like her daughter, Dow will be sad the day the restaurant building is removed from Merchants Row.
“I kind of thought it would be there forever,” Dow said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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