Just as they have for 80 years, friends and neighbors headed to the Riverhead Diner & Grill on East Main Street on Tuesday for coffee, companionship -- and a menu filled with comfort food and memories.
Laughter and conversation flowed as freely as the coffee as a crowd of residents gathered at the Riverhead Diner & Grill to celebrate the eatery's 80th anniversary.
To commemorate the event, the Landmark Preservation Commission hosted an afternoon of shared stories and memories of days gone by.
Richard Wines, chairman of Riverhead's Landmarks Preservation Commission, kicked off the event with a history of the classic 1930s stainless steel diner, which has been a downtown landmark since 1932, and stands as a centerpiece of the newly created Main Street National Register Historic District.
Wines shared stories about John Moustaka, the original owner of the diner. "Like so many Greek immigrants, the family was drawn to food," Wines said.
And food much like Mom used to make has kept customers coming back for generations, with classic comfort offerings such as meat loaf and mashed potatoes, pot roast, stuffed cabbage, fried scallops and corned beaf favorites on the tried-and-true menu.
According to a newspaper in the 1930s, "a new dining car arrived in Riverhead," entirely made of wood, with a rounded roof, and was placed on its foundation. The prefabricated diner was representative of diners mass-produced at the time; the companies that built them offered financing so that owners could pay for them "on time," Wines said.
Although originally diners featured counters and stools, in the 1930s, tables were added to make them more appealing to women.
Ads at the time, Wines said, offered "perfect service, perfect food," something he said owner Liz Strebel still offers her customers.
As downtown Riverhead continued to boom in the 1950s, the original diner was shifted; the original windows now line the west side of the establishment and a bay window was added to the front.
Next, Wines said, two brothers, Frank and Joe Strebel, purchased the diner. But, no owner had ever been able to purchase the land on which it sat, which was owned by the Meyers family, who founded Meyer's Department Store on Main Street. Liz Stebel later purchased the parcel for $45,000 with a loan from Suffolk County National Bank in 1984.
Joe Strebel had four daughters, Wines said. "One's still here," he smiled, noting that Strebel has poured her soul into the business for 51 years, working alongside her family for years and later purchasing it from her father. "The rest is history."
Elected officials and regular folks took turns sharing stories and memories about the people they've met and moments they've shared at the diner.
"We mark a town by its buildings," said Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine, who gave a proclamation to Strebel. "They help define and describe what our towns are. The Riverhead Diner & Grill has been here for 80 years. It's a part of our history, of Main Street. It's what makes Riverhead, Riverhead."
Romaine added that the delicious food has been a magnet for generations. Strebel's longevity on Main Street, he added, tells other store owners that Main Street "is a good place to do business." He also thanked Strebel for holding on despite a difficult economy. "Our small business owners are heroes," Romaine said. "They serve us our food, our coffee -- and make this a good place, a special place."
Romaine declared Oct. 23 Riverhead Diner & Grill Day.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter acknowledged that the years haven't always been easy for Strebel. "It's been a tough journey," he said. Three years ago, he said, Strebel "took back" the diner after it had been closed for a short period. But, he said, she worked to keep the business thriving; Walter wished her another 51 years.
Featured prominently on the menu of Tuesday's event was the food. Councilman Jim Wooten, who grew up in Riverhead and went to church right across the street, remembered a time when Main Street was bustling with business and there was no Route 58 -- he worked at a shoe store -- and featured clothing, jewelry and thriving shops.
Wooten would make the rounds for lunch, but kept coming back -- and still does today -- for the two-for-one burgers on Wednesdays.
"I appreciate that you stuck it out," he said. "Everything changed. Big box stores came, but you persevered." And, he added, "Main Street, USA is on its way back and you will reap the rewards for sticking it out."
Strebel thanked the public officials for their support. "Without them, I might not have gotten the place open again." Smiling, she added, "I can see Riverhead coming back to life."
Signs of rebirth, she said, can be found in foot traffic on Saturday nights and people strolling out for a meal. "I love Riverhead," Strebel said, her voice filling with tears. "And I love Main Stret."
Councilman John Dunleavy, who moved to Riverhead in 1968, said while working as a police officer on a Main Street patrol, the diner was a draw for lunch and dinner. "I always loved the meat loaf," he said. "I told my wife, 'Don't worry, I'm going to the Riverhead Diner & Grill for my meat loaf. This place, if it wasn't here, I'd be starving now."
Dunleavy said the diner has not changed -- a familiar and beloved touchstone where Strebel remains a constant.
Another neighbor said the Yankee pot roast was his favorite. And Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who thanked Strebel for all the elbow grease and love she poured into the diner, and for bringing the business "back to life," said she favors the chopped steak.
Joe Grattan remembered training for the Riverhead Police Department and eating at the diner with David McKillop, when a fire across the street at Lentin's burned the building to the ground.
Grattan also said there was a time when there were 17 places to grab a meal in the downtown area.
Laughing, Grattan recalled a night when Strebel asked the police to get "some guy doing a sanctified rain dance" out of the diner. Strebel and her sister took a plastic ketchup bottle and threw it at him, Grattan said. Long story short, Grattan ended up covered in red ketchup -- and wondered how he'd explain it to his wife.
The diner, Grattan said, has been a long-time tradition, with "the best flounder served anywhere in America."
Warren McKnight remembered moving into his first home with his wife in Wading River and going to the diner for his first meal in his new home, in the Town of Riverhead. "Those were the best eggs I ever had."
For the rest of the afternoon, friends and neighbors shared stories about other Riverhead businesses, including the Beehive, Woolworth's, the Main Street Cafe, and the still-bustling Papa Nick's.
Strebel said she remembers Kratoville's, where everyone went for coffee; Jack Kratoville -- also celebrating his 80th birthday -- and his wife Louise, who worked in the projection booth at the Suffolk Theatre, shared stories. One longtime resident remembered a peanut man who came to town with a monkey and an organ. Friends recalled a time when Main Street was decorated for Christmas, with lights strung across the street and shoppers crowding the stores.
But through it all, the Riverhead Diner & Grill has remained the place where friends and neighbors have come to share home-cooked meals, and the stories of their lives.
"This is what Riverhead was all about," said Jerry Steiner, who owns Allied Optical on West Main Street, and used to come to the diner with his grandfather. "This has always been the meeting place. This is Riverhead, right here."