SALEM — Some came out for one last chop suey sandwich. Others, the memories.
After announcing earlier in the year that this season would be their last, beloved Willows restaurant Salem Lowe opened Friday morning for its final weekend in business.
The window opened Friday to a line that was already more than 50 people deep. By 11:45 a.m., 60 were lined up. By 12:15 p.m., 82. Soon, the line nearly ran the length of the Willows strip, crossing ice cream windows and arcade entrances along the way.
“I’ve been coming since the ‘60s, my father since the ‘50s, and for him, it’s the same,” said Denise Graffeo, a Saugus resident.
“We’d do a lot of coming down at night and sitting on the other benches on the other side and eating dinner. Where else can you get a better view for free?” said Joe Palamara, of Salem. “This is an icon.”
“It’s another icon gone,” interjected Brian Latulippe, a Beverly resident standing right behind him. Then, continued Palamara, “Bertini’s. We just lost Bertini’s, another icon. We’re running out of places to go.” (Bertini’s Restaurant, a landmark on Canal Street, closed last month.)
With ties to the area predating the Great Salem Fire in 1914, the present iteration of Salem Lowe ran under the Yee family since the 1970s. With a wide-reaching menu, the eatery was best known for a handful of local favorites, most notably the chop suey sandwich — roast pork or chicken, onions, celery and bean sprouts cooked in a thickened soy gravy and served on a hamburger bun, per the New England Historical Society.
“It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve the community for so long, with patrons from all over the country coming year in and year out,” a note titled “THANK YOU!!” read on the business’ door over the weekend. “We are so appreciative for your support of our family-run business. It is time for us to retire. Thanks for the memories!”
The feeling was always mutual, of course.
“We used to come up here with my mother and father,” said Richard DiNapoli, of Everett, alongside his wife Judy as he pointed to his daughter Stephanie Koerber, of Peabody. “Her grandmother and grandfather loved this place. We still come up here.”
Standing on a nearby walkway, three Saugus women recalled decades of traversing the Willows as part of a yearly tradition cemented in a sandwich.
“We’d come for the chop suey sandwich, and for the ice cream. Every year, we’d do it,” said Eleanor Bourque, alongside Lorraine Martel and Janet Pothier. “God, at one point, I had my mother in a wheelchair. Remember?”
“The kids were so young,” added Martel. Joining in, Pothier said, “that must have been at least 20 years ago.”
As the years went by, it seemed the Willows wasn’t just the best place to go for chop suey — it was perhaps the only one, in its own way.
“It’s the only place we ever heard of it,” Pothier said, looking toward the line leading to the restaurant. “We figured we’d come down for one more. But now it’s like... are we gonna wait in line? Or what?”
“As long as we stand here, the line is getting longer,” Bourque advised.
Graffeo, Palamara and Latulippe didn’t know each other before getting in line, but when they saw a news reporter, they all took the opportunity to gush about their shared love.
Christopher Cefalo, standing among them, said he wanted another restaurant to take over for Lowe. “Maybe Kowloon, Saugus Wings.”
“No, I live in Saugus,” interjected Graffeo. “I don’t want the area to deteriorate anymore. We want the place to be revitalized, with stuff people want to see and do.”
Elsewhere in the line, one woman walked away with a pepper steak in hand and a tear in her eye: “They just paid for it for me. Those people down there.” She pointed to DiNapoli and Koerber.
“My dad is almost 80, and he grew up in Peabody. He used to tell me stories about everything that used to exist here and of course doesn’t. But this place was always a staple for him, and the pepper steak was his lifeblood,” said Keri Moise, a Danvers resident.
Moise’s father is facing serious health problems, and he’s “having a hard time,” Moise said, clutching a brown paper bag to her chest. “So this was the greatest gift I could give him.”
But when Moise got to the window, she realized she came without cash, the only way to pay in Lowe’s final weekend. At that point, “like angels on the Earth,” the family stepped in and covered her father’s pepper steak, she said. Looking down-wind, DiNapoli waved back at Moise as she cracked a smile.
“What they just did for me... that’s the example of what these long-standing neighborhood places do for a community,” Moise said. “They bring people together in ways that you don’t see on the street.”
Looking at the length of the growing line, Moise added, “the show of support here today is exceptional. ... I’m glad I got to wait in line for an hour and have one of the greatest experiences of humanity I’ve ever had.”