MERIDEN — When Elizabeth Martin got behind the counter of The Landmark Diner for the first time in 50 years it felt like stepping back in time.
“I could pick up where I left off,” Martin said as she helped relay a new customer’s order to the cook at the grill. Two eggs and white toast she repeated, asking if they wanted home fries with that.
Martin and her sister Sue Loin worked at the 82 West Main St. diner in the late 1960s, when they were in high school and the restaurant was called The Palace Diner. Their aunt and uncle, Stella and Joseph “Baker” Bakaj, owned the diner from 1965 to 1972.
The 69-year-old twins recently made a pilgrimage to the spot, which Loin hadn’t been back to since last working there. Martin had visited in 2008 (when it was Cassidies Diner) and remembers being very disappointed with how dirty it was.
New owners brought the diner back to life just last month — renaming it The Landmark Diner for its decades-long history.
While talking to one of the current operators — Hanan Hassan, whose fiance and brother serve as the main operators — both sisters said they were much more impressed by the diner now.
“Now I'm thrilled with the cleanliness of this place, it's beautiful,” Martin said. When Martin and Loin worked for their Polish aunt and uncle, they were careful to work hard and to keep it spotless.
Sitting down with coffee, the two shared old memories of their time in the stainless steel diner that was there long before them and has continued long after.
With Hassan, they shared trade secrets for filling the ketchup holders and salt shakers, laughed about the way you had to carry coffee without spilling, and how they learned about people and being kind to others by watching their aunt and uncle interact with their customers.
“I saw my Uncle Joe, he was friends with everybody; (Aunt) Stella knew everything, and they talked about even really personal things,” Martin said.
“I never thought you'd talk about personal things with strangers, but you do and you learn it’s OK,” she said.
Martin remembers the social climate of the time being so much less hostile and argumentative than it is now. “Nobody was judgemental,” they said.
Both credit their aunt and uncle’s care for others as one of the reasons their business was so successful.
“I think the secret of having a successful place is talking to the customers,” Loin told Hassan. “Just getting a personal relationship with them and letting them know you care.”
Both sisters met their first dates in the diner, they saved up their earnings for prom dresses, and still teasingly fight about who had to work more summers in the hot, air conditioning-less diner. (it was Martin).
Each sister can vividly remember some of their regular customers — the doctor that always requested burnt toast, the man who made comments about their weight. Martin still remembers profound advice she was given by one older woman.
“ ‘Never let love, when you're young, get in the way of your education.’ And then she said, ‘after your education, never let education get in the way of your love,’” Martin said repeating the advice.
The twins are the second-oldest of seven siblings, but the only two that worked for their aunt and uncle, who they said loved them as their own children, since they had none. The love was more than mutual.
"I think the secret of having a successful place is talking to the customers"
-Sue Loin, whose aunt and uncle owned The Palace Diner
The Palace Diner was the Bakajs third restaurant, and they retired afterward. It was sold to Pine Maple Arms Inc., whose president was Dorothy Orsini, in 1972.
Local landmark reborn
Samir Hassan, his sister Hanan Hassan, and her fiance Jovany Ayala, each in their 20s, reopened the historic Meriden diner in October. They're calling it The Landmark Diner, a name apropos of its decades-long history.
“That word kind of summarizes the whole history — everything it's been and everything it's going to be,” said Samir Hassan.
The 1949 Steel City Diner has stood on its lot for at least 70 years. It has been home to many owners — sometimes for only a few months, sometimes for a whole decade. It’s also gone many years empty.
As the people, businesses and even buildings themselves around the diner have evolved over the decades, there the stainless steel diner car has stood.
There were some years when lines were out the door, when you could catch anyone from town inside the small railroad-car structure. There were also times when former owners failed to pay the mortgage and faced foreclosure.
The diner has seen at least 12 owners since 1949, according to city land records. Technically more if you count quitclaim deed transfers between family members, or a bank foreclosing and taking possession of the property.
Francis Delaney owned the diner for the longest, as Cassidies from 2003 to 2013. Bayview Loan Services foreclosed on the property in 2013, which was soon picked up by Panno Manuela, who renovated the space.
In the summer of 2018, Manuela — who had no intention of operating the diner, just preserving it — sold to current owner Le Hung, who rents the space to Hassan.
The Landmark Diner recently had some exterior painting done, changing Cassidies Diner’s green theme to red. It’s still waiting for a new sign but Samir Hassan said it should be up soon. The changes are part of the owners’ rebranding efforts to change old impressions.
The Hassans and Ayala have vivid visions of what the diner can become.
A diner for everyone
They’re embracing the retro “throwback” theme that will transport diners to the 50s. They want to keep their older crowd happy, but they’re also trying to cater more to young people with a wide range of social media engagement and planned “teen nights.”
They hope to make The Landmark Diner into a place where anyone — of any age or ethnicity — can feel safe and comfortable while having an experience that includes really great food and personal service. They want to be rooted in the community. They want to be a place people will wait in lines for. They want you to feel like it's your second home when you eat with them.
Hanan Hassan can be found at the diner daily, while her brother and fiance have other full-time jobs they’re juggling, in architecture and car sales respectively.
Samir and Hanan Hassan grew up mainly in Meriden, but have a diverse background that they hope will make people feel comfortable to come in.
Both speak English, Spanish and Arabic fluently and their families moved from Puerto Rico to the Middle East, and other parts of the United States several times when they were young.
“I'm excited because we're a unique group of people and we're in a unique spot,” said Samir Hassan, “and Meriden is in a unique place right now, so there's a lot that can happen.”