Thursday, August 28, 2008

In Maine: My hometown's last restaurant is closing

Princeton's lone restaurant draws a crowd, but not for long.

Every time I came home from college, my parents would take me out for breakfast at least once during my stay.

On Tuesday, I had my last plate of bacon, eggs and pancakes at my hometown's only restaurant. It will close Saturday.

The restaurant will go the way of the lumber mill that burned, was rebuilt, then closed about 15 years ago. It will go the way of one of the town's gas stations and the used-car dealership that replaced it. It will go the way of much of the town's population. It will cease to exist.

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Princeton, a town of about 800, was a great place to grow up. And the crowd that gathered each morning at the restaurant was made up of typical small-town people, the kind of people I would imagine myself being if I stayed to live in Princeton.

There was Bobby, whom I remember best for his keenness with the shotgun when shooting clay pigeons. I grew up to be a crack shot myself with the 12 gauge.

There was Gana, who didn't say much but would once in a while say something that would make the old guffaws break down in laughter.

Then there was me, watching them. I didn't exactly fit in, but I enjoyed their background chatter as I tried to carry on a conversation with my parents or my grandparents, who would sometimes tag along. Every now and then, something that they said would stand out and prompt a bit of a chuckle from my more staid group.

The restaurant has no name. It sits adjacent to a convenience store and gas station. The walls are metal, and the roof is nearly flat.

The dining room is antiquated. There are old wooden booths and plastic holders for the grape, raspberry and apricot jams and jellies that would be slathered onto the two pieces of toast that came with most every meal. The walls are hung with several framed photos of my father's work.

And the food is surprisingly good. The two cooks on duty in the morning slap everything onto the griddle in front of the breakfast bar. You can watch their every move, so they have no choice but to cook it right.

On Tuesday, I got the hungry man's special, which was a combination of two pancakes with real maple syrup, bacon, eggs, home fries and coffee. I wasn't quite hungry enough for the trucker's special. I can't quite remember what that was, but it was more food than I could handle.

My only complaint is that the waitress never came back over to ask if I wanted another cup of coffee. Instead, she sat down with a co-worker and ate her breakfast.

But I didn't mind, especially considering that the two will lose their jobs when the restaurant closes Saturday morning. It will be open for one last breakfast hurrah for the local crowd, then it will close at 11 a.m.

Circle K, the convenience store chain, purchased all of Irving Oil's gas stations/restaurants/stores in the United States. Irving, a Canadian company, will continue to sell gasoline at the locations, but the restaurants will close. Circle K will not lease the properties. Instead, one-restaurant towns in places such as Washington County will be left without an eatery and without a hangout where good conversation was found around a pot of coffee.

In many communities, it won't be a big deal. But for Princeton, a relatively large town compared with some of the others in the area, residents will have to travel 30 minutes to the big city of Calais or even St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Fat chance with the gas prices as high as they are.

In the future, when I head home for a visit, I suppose I'll have to settle for my mother's home cooking. That's not a bad thing, but for us and for many similar town folk, going out for breakfast was just something to do in a town with very little left.

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