Classic Rhode Island diner rescued from wrecking ball
PAWTUCKET, R.I. >> Each year some of the roughly 2,000 factory-built diners around the United States are demolished, but an enduring fascination with the 20th-century breakfast tradition has helped some get rescued from the wrecking ball.
After sitting vacant for 14 years in a weed-strewn lot in Pawtucket, the historic Silver Top Diner was sold for $30,500 to the highest bidder at a public auction Wednesday.
A constable held a bidding war outside the boarded-up restaurant that an expert said was built during the "golden age of the diner" in the 1930s by the New Jersey-based Kullman Dining Car Company. A former owner who lost the diner after a yearslong legal battle interrupted the bidding in protest.
Diners might be an endangered institution, but they remain beloved by many, said diner historian Richard Gutman, who traveled from Massachusetts to watch the auction Wednesday. And some people are willing to spend a lot of money to rescue and refurbish them.
"It ranges from institutions looking for a remarkable, iconic object for a collection," Gutman said. "Then there are people looking for a business opportunity who are fascinated by the idea of what a diner means to our culture and community. And then there are people who are just smitten by it."
Buying the diner is the easy part. Those who've transformed old diners into new restaurants say it can cost a half-million dollars to do it right.
New York City has lost many of its classic diners to rising property values and a changing culture. One Manhattan institution called the Moondance was relocated to a small town in Wyoming, then closed a few years later during the gas industry bust. Another moved to the Catskills and has also closed.
Others have fared better. A diner in Middletown, Rhode Island, was relocated a few years ago to the remote mountain city of Oakley, Utah, where it was renamed the Road Island Diner and continues to welcome patrons.
Rhode Island lays claim to inventing the diner, or at least its precursor: a horse-drawn lunch wagon that served food outside a newspaper office in 1872. And while New Jersey is believed to have more diners than any other state, Gutman said New England diners are among the most prized by collectors because they never adapted to flashier and modern styles.
"The Yankee frugality was an incentive to not replace or upgrade them," he said.
Pawtucket's Silver Top operated in nearby Providence for decades until it was forced to move in 2002 to make room for downtown redevelopment projects.
Pawtucket officials offered diner operator Patricia Brown a loan to move it to city-owned land, but there were disagreements over how to operate it. It sat under a tarp for years, its menus, stools and old movie posters gathering dust inside until a court ruled that it could be auctioned off.
"We were looking to get people out here who were interested in restoring diners so it didn't just go to scrap," said Michael Cassidy, Pawtucket's former redevelopment director who now consults with the city.
The winning bidder was Katie Cerrone, owner of the 1950s-themed KC's Classic Burger Bar in North Attleborough, Massachusetts, who is hoping to expand her burger business to a new location. She has 90 days to move the diner from the Pawtucket lot.
Brown, the former Silver Top owner and waitress, is still upset about what happened. She showed up at the auction to tell whoever bought it not to call it the Silver Top Diner anymore.
"They bought the diner," Brown said. "They didn't buy the Silver Top."
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