Diaries of a Diner: A Hopeful Fate for a Beloved All-American Dining Experience
It’s easy to imagine a time when silver, streamlined diners speckled the granite landscape – but it seems only a few of these American relics remain open in Vermont and New Hampshire today. It’s one reason why there’s been so much buzz around the “For Sale” sign outside the Four Aces Diner in West Lebanon. The question on everyone’s mind seems to be: will it remain open? And, if so, will it stay the same diner we know and love?
Although the diner was likely named for the 1950s pop quartet – The Four Aces – its history is summed up by the contemporary singer-songwriter, Martin Sexton. In his song “Diner,” Sexton sings: “They were made back in Worcester, MA, of aluminum, and Bakelite, and glass.” Look up the famed Worcester Lunch Car Co. on Wikipedia and you’ll see “4 Aces Diner” listed as one of at least four lunch wagons that made their way up the East Coast to New Hampshire in the 1940s and ’50s. Although camouflaged by a red clapboard exterior, the Four Aces is – in fact – Worcester diner car #837, dating back to 1952.
“They towed them in next to factories, so the factory workers could go in, have something to eat, and get out in a half hour. That’s what they were designed for,” Four Aces co-owner Steven Shorey says, who provides me with his own brief history of the diner as we sit in a cozy booth with his sister and fellow Four Aces co-owner, Leann Briggs, on a snowy Friday afternoon in January.
“All the cooking was done out front of these diners originally, and it’s hard to find someone who can do that,” Shorey says. “It’s a lot of people, and a lot of mouths to feed.” Hiring and retaining line cooks is something Shorey and Briggs know a thing or two about. Shorey has owned the Four Aces for thirty-four years and has managed the diner alongside Briggs for over fifteen of those years.
The Stewart family – whose name appears on the original diner blueprints before it was built – owned the Four Aces Diner when it first opened on December 6, 1952 at the corner of Main Street and Dana Street in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. It remained at that location for thirty-two years before moving down the hill to its current location in 1986. In celebration of the diner’s 70th birthday this past December, Shorey and Briggs sold hamburgers and hotdogs at their original ’50s price point. Q106 (“The Valley’s Best Rock”) held a live broadcast of the event until noon, and WCAX showed up to gather footage for their evening news.
After its initial run, Dot Gomez, of Lebanon, purchased the diner in 1965 and began her successful twenty-year operation, ending in ’85. Shortly thereafter, Shorey purchased the property in ’89 for around $150,000. He had an interest in the food and beverage industry dating back to 1963, when he was twelve years old and working as a busboy at the former Montshire Restaurant on Route 10 in West Lebanon. Shorey continued to work locally at the Hotel Coolidge and the former Howard Johnson’s restaurant, both in White River Junction. He also spent a brief period of time in Florida running resorts. Other than that, he and Briggs have lived most of their lives in Lebanon.
Briggs became involved with the diner when it reopened on Mother’s Day in 1991. “On my first day here,” she recounts, “I went home crying. I was never coming back to this place.” Briggs explains that they ran out of food and one of the grills caught on fire. “It was just a horrible day,” she says, then adds, “By the time my husband and kids came for lunch, the only thing left to feed my youngest son was a peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwich!” After the unexpectedly busy opening day – having served 50 customers without even advertising – Shorey and Briggs spent the rest of the night baking pies in preparation for the next day’s customers.
After five years, Rick Clark ran the diner from 1998-2007. By the time 2010 rolled around, Shorey was planning to sell the property, but realized the business would be worth more if it remained open, so he and Briggs once again opened its doors without much fanfare, but to great success. “Actually,” says Shorey, “this last time we reopened, we did 130 just unlocking the door!”
I comment that someone could probably make a movie about the Four Aces. “Every day is different,” the pair says. “You never know what to expect.”
That being said, there’s something about ‘the American diner’ that feels predictable in an unpredictable world, holding iconic sway in Americana imagery. From Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to the famous booth in the popular ’90’s sitcom Seinfeld, diners are as familiar as they are familial, especially in small, close-knit communities like Lebanon. Named one of Yankee Magazine’s “15 Best Diners in New England” in 2022, Four Aces embodies the image of the quintessential American diner, from the way it looks to the comfort food it serves.
Shorey explains that Monday through Friday at the diner tends to beckon more of a blue-collar crowd. “It’s a lot of construction people,” he says. “We have contacts with an electric company, Liberty Facilities, so when the power goes out, we feed ‘em.” Given recent widespread power outages in the Lebanon area back in December, it’s heartening to imagine electric workers stopping in for a warm meal and hot coffee to ease the demands of their profession at such a time.
The diner, which has always held strong ties with Dartmouth College, hosts large numbers of students on the weekends. “They all eat here,” Shorey says. “It’s been that way for 70 years, and now grandfathers who went to Dartmouth bring their grandkids in to feed them, too.”
Indeed, weekends are very popular at Four Aces, bringing in close to 500 people a day. “What’s totally amazing to me,” Shorey explains, “is that we get below-zero weather here and people will wait for an hour outside to get in! Every weekend we have a line around the corner. Every single weekend. Even in the cold.” “It’s a right of passage,” Briggs adds.
There was a time in the early days when Shorey and Briggs knew their regular customers by name, but since the diner’s popularity continues to grow, it’s not so easy to keep them straight, unless you’re part of the 7 am crowd. “If you come in here at seven in the morning, you’ll see all these stools fill right up with the same people every day,” Briggs says. “In fact, the other day, (our customer) Dave didn’t come down and the girls were all worried about him because he’s been working on his generator…and he’s an 80-year-old guy. The girls were all like, ‘Where’s Dave?!’and when the other guys came in, they’d ask, ‘Have you talked to Dave? Is he okay?’”
I can imagine this scene on an early weekday morning. The interior – worn but familiar – with tiled floors, stainless steel contrasting dark wooden booths, and built-in coat hooks covered in heavy winter coats. The red and white stools along the counter, and kitschy American memorabilia lining the shelves that combine with an unmistakable greasy diner smell mixed with black coffee and the constant, bustling hum of servers and customers interacting. It all plays out over a backdrop of oldies tunes – songs waitresses sing along to. It cradles a person.
It’s easy to understand how significant moments in the lives of Upper Valley residents take place here. As if on cue, a group starts singing “Happy Birthday” during our interview. Briggs smiles and says, “There are a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, we had our first date here!’”
While Shorey has had to make some changes to the diner over the years – like shields that have been installed between the booths since the pandemic – he’s been careful that any alterations remain faithful to its original design. Other than that, not much about its interior has changed in 70 years. “A lot of people have asked to buy the memorabilia, but it’s not for sale. Elvis is popular,” Shorey says, referring to a bust of the famed rock ‘n’ roll icon that sits next to a small, pink Cadillac on a shelf above the booths. I imagine the porcelain bust of Elvis longing for a peanut butter, sliced banana and crisp bacon sandwich, and wonder if “The Elvis” will ever appear on the Four Aces menu. It could serve as a consolation prize for visitors after finding out they can’t take the figure home with them.
According to my own informal poll, popular menu items at the Four Aces include the Eggs Benedict. One friend told me, “I don’t care who buys the place as long as they keep the Florentine on the menu!” Everyone seems to have their favorites, but during my recent visit, I opted for two eggs over easy with wheat toast and potatoes. A classic combo: the only surprise were some sassy spices in the potatoes, which I enjoyed if only because I knew I wouldn’t be able to replicate them in my own kitchen.
For $1.2 million, the Four Aces kitchen could be my own. Shorey asks if I have my checkbook. “I’ve got the keys in the closet!” he says. But, when I ask about potential buyers, Shorey holds his cards slightly close to his vest while sharing that there has been considerable interest from a number of prospects. “But, I don’t know what they’re looking for,” he says. “Are they gonna change it? Get rid of the diner? I hope not. We don’t want it to go away.” Shorey goes on to explain, “Until you put it up for sale, you don’t realize how important you are in the community.” When I ask what would happen if they don’t receive an offer, Shorey replies, “I guess we haven’t thought of that…”
For now, they’re still operating. Shorey explains, “There are repairs and things we need to do. It’s a turnkey operation, so everything goes with it.” This could include fifteen employees, which in today’s job market is a win for any new owner.
I was lucky enough to meet two of the waitresses at the counter, Tina and Kim, and enjoyed talking with them about music, specifically a Billy Joel song we were singing along to. “That your phone, hon?” Kim asks, reminding me not to forget my cell phone. I feel swallowed up by kindness when strangers take care of me in this way. This is the vibe to expect at Four Aces. In fact, when I arrived, I immediately saw friends in one of the first booths I glanced toward. Friends who don’t mind if you scoot in next to them for a quick chat, and of course I should have known that would happen. Even on a slower day amidst snowy weather, the Four Aces is still a popular destination.
Shorey tells me about some customers who left the diner recently because they claimed it was too busy and they were feeling claustrophobic. As the mastermind behind the quotes posted above the counter and sprinkled around the diner, Shorey had the perfect response, “Nobody comes here anymore. It’s too crowded!” He turns to Briggs and asks, “Who am I quoting?” Briggs replies, “Is that Yogi Berra? It sounds like him.”
One quote I notice in particular is by Marilyn Monroe. It’s posted at the end of the diner on the door leading to the kitchen and it goes, “Ever notice that ‘what the hell’ is always the right decision?” I can’t help but wonder if this is the overarching attitude in the whole process of listing the property for sale. “I’m already basically retired,” Shorey says. “And I want to be retired!” Briggs replies. From where I’m sitting, they deserve a rest. It’s been a long, successful run, and while everyone seems to want the place to remain open another 70 years, we might just need to consult one of the many magic 8 balls located throughout the diner and give it a good shake.