A Milford landmark begins a trek to a new home and resurrection in Indiana
Struggling against Wednesday morning’s gusting winds and biting cold, Mike Lambert and a crew from his Connecticut Detailing in New Milford applied shrink-wrap to what was once The Milford Diner, prepping it for transport to a new life a third of the way across the country.
Come Nov. 19, the more than 70-year-old building, once as well-known as other long gone city staples — Harrison’s Hardware, Glazer’s Furniture, Schpero’s Jewelers and Paul’s Hamburgers — was scheduled to be hauled onto I-84 on its way to Kokomo, Ind., and renovation to its former glory.
“They made a breakfast to die for,” recalled Judith Gemignani. “Their home fries were out of this world. My sister, Helen, worked there and I’d be there every morning.”
Among city gathering places, the Milford Diner was distinct. Built in the 1946 Silk City style by the Paterson Vehicle Co. in Paterson, N.J., it had the familiar red interior — six red vinyl booths sitting four and 20 red vinyl stools lining the counter.
The diner opened and closed earlier than the others, city residents recalled. Its speciality was breakfast and lunch; the restaurant wasn’t open for dinner.
“The phone booth in front was a life-saver for me,” recalled Jamie Howanec, who used it often to call her parents after a matinee at the long gone Capitol Theater once located around the corner.
“I can still see Lou (the late Iljas Memaj, who owned the diner) standing over the grill flipping burgers while not missing a beat in the back-and-forth banter with his regulars,” said Larry Urban, who spent many a lunch hour there while working as an insurance agent downtown.
The move to Indiana marks the latest chapter in the diner’s story since the Memajes retired and closed the restaurant in 2003.
Over the years, there’s been talk — but little else — about its future.
One person was going to buy it and reopen it. Another group was hoping to raise $80,000 to turn it into a downtown visitor’s bureau. The city marked it for blight and was threatening to tear it done.
“It appeared there was too much work to be done to bring it up to code to keep it here,” said Bill DaSilva, one of the owners of the SBC Restaurant near where the diner sat. “If it never shut down and was kept running, it probably would still be a diner.”
Despite its rough condition — including damage caused by a vehicle hit within the past few months — DaSilva said he had probably gotten 20 calls on its availability before deciding to give the building to Danny Miller, who plans to renovate it once it’s in Kokomo.
In a July interview with The Milford Mirror, Miller told writer Jill Dion he intends to re-open it as a working diner.
Miller has owned a motor vehicle restoration business. Attempts to reach him were not successful Wednesday.
More than two years ago, Miller created a Save The Milford Diner Facebook page with a link to a GoFundMe.com campaign. The page said the campaign seeks to raise $25,000 for transportation and restoration.
As of Nov. 14, the 25-month account had raised only $160.
Despite the lack of donations, the diner is now on the move.
Tuesday, a crane lifted the diner atop a tractor-trailer owned by M and G Rigging and Hauling of Lancaster, Pa.
Hauling diners is nothing new to M and G’s Mel Brandt, the trucking firm’s president. In the diner world, he’s king of the road and the hauler to call.
“I’ve done a lot of these,” he said. “Maybe 200 or so over the last 20 years. I moved one out of Willimantic.”
The key is to make sure its protected on the haul, he said.
“You don’t want parts blowing away,” Brandt said. “On this one, the wood is weak, the screws are loose ...it’s going to take a lot of work to get it up and running.”
Richard J.S. Gutman, author of “American Diner Then and Now,” said Miller has his work cut out for him.
“To do a diner restoration correctly, the cost is probably closer to $200,000,” said Gutman, who has worked on more than 100 such projects. “The company that built this diner began by building wagons and later buses. If he has experience in restoring cars, he knows what he can do and what speciality trades he needs to help him ...But you have to be willing to spend the time and money.”
The history of diners in Milford is complex. Several diners have been known by similar names: The Milford Diner, for instance, is different from the Milford diner, once located on New Haven Avenue but shuttered and moved to Vermont in the late 1980s to make way for Jeffrey’s Restaurant.
Jeffrey’s is now the Kimberly Restaurant operated by the Tsopanides Family. The Tsopanides family operated the Kimberly Diner, across from Colonial Toyota on the Boston Post Road for 43 years before being forced to close in 2013. That building was demolished the following year.
And the name Milford Diner now sits atop a restaurant on 886 Bridgeport Ave. opened in 2017 by Moe Elhelw.
In 2018, two diners remain in the city proper: the Flyer and the Athenian Diner III.
During the diner heyday, there wasn’t a lot of competition from other restaurants and fast food chains were nonexistent, Gutman said.
“It’s not so easy nowadays,” he said. “You’ve got to think ahead. Bring in the right people. Cater to the tastes of the community.”
While Gutman admitted “it’s a tough road ahead” for Miller, “diners bring with them a certain aura and mystique.”
He suggests just looking to the south in Long Island.
“Diners are doing gangbusters business there,” Gutman said.
“I’m happy to hear its being renovated,” Howanec said Wednesday. “I miss it. I had such good times there.
“It was the place to go after a 99-cent Saturday matinee at the Capitol or after skating on the Duck Pond ice, she said. “I can still taste the hamburgers, french fries and cole slaw — the greasier the better.”