From Grease to Ashes

The greasy spoon. Everyone had one in college, some beloved hole-in-the-wall that never seemed to close, a place where the waitresses knew everyone’s name and the cups of coffee were bottomless. (Restaurants that serve breakfast all day were perhaps invented with the sleep cycles of college students in mind.) The greasy spoon is as much a fixture of college life as torturous all-nighters, rainy afternoons in the library, and bizarre roommates.

In college, the greasy spoon I called home was O’Rourke’s, an unrestored steel dining car. A landmark for more than sixty years in the small New England town where my university was located, O’Rourke’s was famous for being open at five in the morning, for its elaborate omelets, its original jukeboxes of forty-fives (complete with speakers at every booth), and for a chef who made the students try his new recipes before he put them on the menu. In an age of franchises and corporations, it was comforting to know that O’Rourke’s was a family business as well. John O’Rourke was the owner and cook until 1978, when his nephew Brian took over the business and the kitchen. Brian O’Rourke has been there ever since.

Starting at dawn, people would line up outside O’Rourke’s, sometimes waiting for close to an hour to get one of the dozen or so seats inside. And for good reason. It was perhaps the only place I know of where you could get a trout-and-peach remoulade with a smoked-salmon-and-gruyere omelet served with crab risotto for a price a college student could afford. (In fact, it is still the only place I know of where you can get a trout-and-peach remoulade with a smoked-salmon-and-gruyere omelet served with crab risotto, period.) So maybe the coffee was bad, but that was easily overlooked.

From the time I was first brought to O’Rourke’s by some friends, midway through my freshman year, to the day I graduated, I went to O’Rourke’s nearly once a week. My devotion had very little to do with the elaborate food, the cheap coffee, or the vintage jukeboxes. It was about something more. It was about a feeling of home, and perhaps of ownership. When you’re a teenager leaving home for the first time, you’ll find comfort in anything that is welcoming and consistent. And it doesn’t hurt if the comfort somehow involves bacon. My weekly breakfasts helped teach me why ritual is important, especially when you’re far from home. Outside of classes, movies, and the library, O’Rourke’s and church were the only two places I went regularly in college.

The summer after I graduated, O’Rourke’s burned down. I drove past the wreckage a few days after it happened. The large windows that once overlooked the street were boarded up, and, without anyone standing eagerly outside, the diner looked small and sad. It was hard to think that my favorite place in college was now closed until further notice. To make matters worse, I found out O’Rourke’s didn’t have fire insurance and it was uncertain whether it would ever reopen.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who felt a special connection to the diner. Within days of the fire, local residents, students, and alumni came together in an effort to preserve their local landmark. A nonprofit group was formed. A Web site, T-shirts, and fundraising events are devoted to rebuilding the place. An architect even volunteered to ensure that the new O’Rourke’s is rebuilt in the same 1950s style as the original diner, but, one hopes, with more seats this time around.

What still shakes me, though, is how easily the landmarks in our lives can disappear. Friendships can fade, old home movies are taped over, coworkers come and go, even our taste buds change every seven years. And, yes, our beloved greasy spoons eventually burn down. But places like O’Rourke’s have a spirit that can never disappear entirely. On a recent visit to my old campus, I was pleasantly surprised to find Brian O’Rourke in a nearby restaurant making his famous breakfasts. I’m pleased to report that the omelets were as good as I remembered, and that O’Rourke’s may one day rise from the ashes.

Published in the 2007-07-13 issue: 

Stephen Aubrey is a former editorial assistant for Commonweal.

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