By Will Grunewald
[cs_drop_cap letter=”T” color=”#000000″ size=”5em” ]he Deluxe Diner is in an old dining car wedged longways in a narrow lot on a quiet side street. It’s easy to pass through Rumford, a small town on the Androscoggin, and not notice it. “I lived here for five years before realizing the place even existed,” says Jodi Campbell, who moved to town in 2003. She eventually came to know the diner well, because five years ago, she and her sister, Julie Kiley, bought it.
Photographed by Joel Page
In 1929, the brand-new restaurant traveled most of the way from the Worcester Dining Car Company, in Massachusetts, to its tucked-away roost in Rumford via rail. A few years ago, a customer — in his mid-90s, Campbell guesses — talked about standing outside to watch as a team of horses pulled it the final few blocks up from the depot, rolling it on logs laid in the streets.
Inside the dining car, there are no tables, just 16 stools at a marble-top counter, which is original, as are the brass cabinet handles, mosaic tile floor, and German-silver range hood. “It all looks original,” Campbell jokes, a nod to some wear and tear. “But you know, it’s so nostalgic. It’s a little bit of history.”
The Deluxe Diner is a year or two younger than Biddeford’s Palace Diner, which several sources consider Maine’s oldest restaurant (there are competing claims). A few years ago, owners of the two establishments took turns sidling up to each other’s counters. “They’re definitely not a greasy spoon,” Campbell says. (The Palace owners were James Beard Award semifinalists last year for their chefy spins on diner food.) “We,” she added, pausing for emphasis, “are a greasy spoon.”
In a ’40s photo, the two older girls to the right of the counter are Yvette and Viola Cormier, whose parents ran the diner and who still come in today; Faye Louvat and Deb Murphy share a laugh before breakfast; a bacon cheeseburger and onion rings will run you about $6.
Connie Arsenault, the previous owner, once tried adding salads to the menu. She wound up with heaps of unused greens. Today, most of what’s on the menu — fried eggs and pancakes, tuna sandwiches and BLTs — has been there from the start, or at least sometime near the start. The home fries are a particular point of pride, Campbell says. “We still do them the exact same way Connie did them, and she was taught by Pete, the owner before her, and I’m sure he got it from someone before him.”
One person who’d been coming in for that food for a long time was Henry Zinck. He graduated from the local high school in 1949, served in the Air Force, then came back and worked in a paper mill for 40 years. Last summer, he died at age 88. “Henry was in every morning, like clockwork, and he would put out our flag for us,” Campbell says. “It’s like you’re losing a little piece of the diner.” She and Kiley set a place at his usual seat, with flowers, and nobody sat there that day. “It sounds silly, but now when I put out the flag, I say, ‘Good morning, Henry.’”
Time has worked other changes on the diner too. At the far end of the counter, a bookie used to take wagers through a window, and some older customers remember their parents sending them in with wads of cash to place bets. Two metal poles (purloined from the paper mill, Campbell suspects) were added to help support the roof, and one of them also demarcated a smoking area back in the day. And in recent years, the diner has started to appeal to a broader audience. “There are a lot more women that come in than ever before,” Campbell says. “There used to be so many bars in Rumford that the diner would stay open all night, and there would be a line around the block. It had a stigma that it was a boys’ club, that it was for the millworkers.”
These days, Campbell and Kiley are happy to see fresh faces at the door, even if that door usually confounds newcomers. “When somebody’s out there fumbling around, trying to push it open,” Campbell says, “just about everybody inside hollers, ‘Slide it!’ Then, the joke is always, ‘Well, you must be a newbie. Jodi and Julie, behave yourselves!”
“You’re in Rumford,” Campbell says, by way of explaining her customers’ chattiness. “It’s not a stuffy place. When people come in for the first time, I hope they leave feeling like they’ve been taken into the fold.”