SALEM — Fred Ouellette, whose parents opened Dotty & Ray's Lunch in 1958, walked into the restaurant last month for the first time in years. He glanced at the menu posted on the wall and did a double-take.
"Did you see the prices?" he said to a friend. "They didn't change much."
Food prices may be soaring worldwide, but not at Dotty & Ray's, where time seems to have stood still and a hamburger is only $2.25. If you want cheese on it, that's 25 cents more.
Tomorrow, the North Street restaurant celebrates its 50th anniversary, and everything on the menu will be half-price. It will be a bargain, but not much more of a bargain than its legion of loyal customers has been enjoying since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House.
"It's the best-kept secret on the North Shore," said John Hayes, a North Salem neighbor.
In many ways, little has changed at Dotty & Ray's in the past half-century. It was been modernized and redecorated, but the booths and counter are in the same place and a lot of the same customers are coming through the door.
Eugene Victory, 81, has been eating here for 50 years and through three owners.
Jim Fleming, a member of the Salem School Committee, has been going to the restaurant for decades. He's not the only local official who has made this a second home. This was also a favorite haunt of the late state Rep. Mike Ruane and late City Councilor Lenny O'Leary.
"They're two wonderful people," Fleming said of the current owners, George and Pauline Markos. "They treat me like I'm at their family table."
That's one of the qualities that keeps customers coming back. This is a family restaurant, first and foremost. When Dottie Ouellette — she spells her name differently than the sign — and her late husband started the business, they lived upstairs with their children. They both worked at the restaurant, along with their kids and other family members.
"He'd come down around 4 a.m. and get things going ... and I'd get the kids off to school," said Dottie, who is now 84 and lives in a nursing home.
It's the same today. George and Pauline Markos work side by side — husband at the grill and wife at the counter — with occasional help from their three adult sons.
"Michael works the weekends, and the other boys, when we need help, they come at night," George said.
Although the restaurant has had different owners, the name has never changed. When the Markoses bought Dotty & Ray's in 1981, they knew the place had a good reputation and decided to keep everything just the way it was. It just wouldn't be the same if it wasn't "Dotty & Ray's."
When Dottie Ouellette came through the door in a wheelchair the other day to pay a visit, Pauline Markos greeted her like a returning matriarch. Markos kidded her about the "Dotty & Ray's" sign out front — a sign that, just like the place, hasn't changed in 50 years.
"You're the one in lights," a smiling Pauline said, "and I'm the one working here."