CRANFORD, NJ — The room was dark except for some afternoon sunlight squeezing through the blinds. The cake case was empty and the knives and forks neatly arranged on napkins stood at the ready for customers who will never come.
The Downtown Family Restaurant across from the train station on North Avenue closed its doors for good Friday, June 1, leaving Tina Priovolos alone with the booths, menus and decades of memories.
Her dad, John, bought the place in 1975, fulfilling a lifelong dream to run his own restaurant. Tina was still tiny when she learned to run the register.
To listen to her describe it, it was a golden childhood. She was practically raised inside this dining room. She would park herself on one of the seats at the five-and-dime-style lunch counter and help herself to ice cream, cake, French fries and milkshakes — those are some of the great perks when dad runs the business.
Most of all, after the final customer had left and the door was locked, Priovolos’ thoughts turned to her father. He did the cooking, the baking and so much more before selling the business in 1986. He still owned the property, however. So, he returned to run the place about three years ago before he died in 2016.
Everywhere she turned inside of the dining room, Priovolos was reminded of those bygone days when her father greeted customers with a big smile, hearty laugh and some wonderful food.
“Keeping the restaurant going,” Priovolos said, “was like keeping him alive, I guess. When I walk in here, I feel his presence everywhere.”
Priovolos said she has been wrestling with the idea of closing the place for a few years now. The original plan was to sell it, but hang in there long enough so as to create a seamless transition with the new owners. However, life had other ideas.
“There was a hint from my father and God, really,” she said. “A lot of things culminated. I wanted to hold off until the other people were ready to come in, but I couldn’t do it because my mom had to go to the hospital.
“My dog dies. Monday, my mom went into surgery. Tuesday, my dog died. And then the third day, one of the waitresses had to have emergency surgery. So, I had to visit my mom and the waitress. And it was the anniversary of father’s death in that same month. It was just a culmination of, ‘You know, I can’t do this. I can’t do all this.’ My daughter works full time and she would finish and come help out. So, I said, ‘You know, I think that’s a sign saying it’s time.’ I couldn’t cut myself in 50 different pieces.”
Although she had been preparing herself for this moment, the last day was difficult for Priovolos. The regulars in town, who would line the lunch counter and order everything from scrod to stuffed cabbage to spaghetti, filed in to say goodbye. The waitresses and cooks took photos together. Well-wishers gave Priovolos a bouquet of bright purple flowers as a going away present.
The way the emotions and tears flowed reminded Priovolos of the final episode of one of NBC’s long-running comedies from the 1980s and ’90s in which another neighborhood eatery that was beloved by its surrounding community shut its doors.
“We had families, kids here,” she said. “I had little kids crying, saying this was their favorite place and they’re so sad. It broke my heart. And the counter crew from town, and the locals. They were coming for years. They said how much fun it was to come here. It was like ‘Cheers’ — a lot of goodbyes and tears.”
Priovolos thinks her father would have understood that it was time to move on and focus on taking care of her mother, Irene, who was to be discharged from the hospital the day after the restaurant closed.
To remind, or perhaps to reassure, herself she evoked Ecclesiastes in the goodbye note she posted on the restaurant’s front door.
“There is a reason for everything in life,” it read in part.
Priovolos’ father, John, would have been proud of his daughter.
He came from Melissa, a small village in the south of Greece; served in the Greek army; and was an electrician by trade. He worked hard, saved up some money and came to America in 1966.
Priovolos said her dad was a powerful role model. He showed her the importance of hard work, and also ran the Lido Diner on U.S. Route 22 in Springfield.
“That’s what he said, ‘Never give up. Always strive,’ she said. “He came from Greece. He came over here with nothing. He would always say, ‘Work hard and never give up.’ And that’s what he did.”
He loved horse racing, gardening and, above all, cooking food that made people happy.
Around the Downtown Family Restaurant, formerly the Cranford Diner, he was known as the “Soup King.”
“He was wonderful,” Priovolos said. “He would love to make the cookies. He loved to make the soup and come and say, ‘Here, try this.’ He had a big personality.”
Priovolos said there was one final sign that it was time to close the restaurant. After all the customers had left, a light in the dining room inexplicably went out. Immediately, she remembered a tale her parents often told her. John had proposed to Irene under a street light.
“When he asked her, the light went out,” Priovolos said. “He told her that it was a sign that she had to say yes to him.”