PEABODY — At 7 a.m. yesterday, an emotional farewell took place at The Little Depot Diner on Railroad Avenue.
The seven or eight regulars who file in day after day right at opening had their last breakfast in the family-owned, 1929 Worcester Lunch Car diner near Peabody Square. The diner is now closed, owners Jim and Judy Miles announced, reluctantly.
Upon hearing the news, the regular 7 a.m. crowd gave the Mileses a round of applause.
"We've had a lot of fun here," Jim Miles said later that day, as he pulled the cord that toots the horn on a toy train that circles atop the perimeter of the single-counter diner. "This was a fantastic experience, and we're going to miss it very much."
The diner was a labor of love for the whole Miles family. Judy ran the diner, buying supplies, waiting tables and keeping the books; Jen, their daughter, worked every Saturday; John, their son, helped out whenever he could waiting tables, cooking and bantering with patrons; while Jim, a full-time general manager at a contract manufacturing firm, worked mornings and weekends.
"We needed each other in order for the place to run," said Jen, a schoolteacher in Lynn.
Although the little diner has only 13 counter seats, it proved to be "a lot more work than we planned," Jim said. "It's really a two-person operation to run it properly, and I have a full-time job outside of this, so it put a lot of burden on my wife. We just felt it was time to let someone else take over."
He's hoping new owners can be found.
The diner has been occupying the same patch of land at 1 Railroad Ave. since 1950. It's had several names — Kurly's Diner, Holly's Diner and others — and several owners over the years. Before 1950, the diner was actually on wheels; a truck pulled it around to the various tanneries in the city to feed workers on their lunch break, Jim said.
A shot at a dream
It had always been a dream of the Mileses to own a small restaurant. Their chance came three and a half years ago, when the diner went up for sale. Within 15 minutes of walking into the place, they had a handshake agreement to buy it and spent the whole winter of 2007-2008 fixing it up.
"It became everything a diner should be," Jim said. "This is something we put our heart and soul into, and I think if you look around here, you'll see that."
Indeed, it's like stepping back in time with the vintage Moxie advertising, the catchy little signs, the train that circles overhead — right down to the original Worcester Lunch Car tiling. You practically expect a soda jerk to slide a vanilla shake down the counter at you.
"The place is family owned and operated, and you really sensed that when you went in there," said Blair Haney, a Peabody city planner who stopped in nearly every week with colleagues from City Hall. "They had a really good following. At lunchtime you're better off getting there early, or you'd be waiting a little bit."
The diner had a lot of regulars right off the bat, Jim said. Some always came in the same day of the week at the same time; others came every day.
"We have a small group of people at 7 every morning. The first people turn the ("Closed") sign around, others put the flags up for us. It's a great group," Jim said. "We didn't have an opportunity to tell them we'd be closing, so we opened up for them (yesterday). After they were all in, we closed the door behind us and let them know."
Jim and Judy had made the final decision to close only the day before.
'Part of the family'
"It was a very, very difficult morning. Everybody was crying; there wasn't a dry eye in the place," Jen said of the last breakfast.
"The saddest part for me is the group of Saturday regulars that I don't get to say goodbye to now. It's like a breakup we're going through. All of these people are part of our lives. You get to know who is having kids, grandkids, who's getting married, who's going on vacation. They are like a part of our family."
The diner even had a brush of fame in 2009, when Food Network star Guy Fieri showed up with a film crew to shoot an episode of "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives." Since then, the diner has been getting a steady stream of people curious to try some of the food made famous in the show, such as the homemade baked beans.
The guest book, put out after the show aired, is signed by people from 38 countries and all but five states — and those are just the people who took the time to sign.
"I'm proud of this diner, I'm proud of my family, and I'm really proud of my wife for turning this into the business it is," Jim said.
In a voice mail greeting on the diner's phone, Judy left a heartfelt message for the many who have come to enjoy breakfast or lunch over the years:
"We are very sorry to inform you that we are closed until further notice. We thank all of our loyal customers, family and friends, and for all the good times we've shared over the years. We wish you all well and God bless."