Patrons Rebuild Beloved Connecticut Diner

Hometown Heroes, People
on April 13, 2008

Hungry and excited patrons inhale the aroma of morning coffee and scones as they wait to enter ORourkes Diner in Middletown, Conn. (pop. 47,481). Owner Brian ORourke, 57, radiates satisfaction as he reopens the restaurant, which was gutted by an August 2006 fire and rebuilt through the generosity of his loyal customers.

This is Brians big day and I wanted to be absolutely sure that someone was at the door as it opened, says Ethan Platt, 37, of Durham, Conn. (pop. 6,627), the first customer in line for the Feb. 11 reopening. Brians the greatest cook and Ive waited 18 hungry months for his Irish breakfast with corned beef hash and homemade bread.

ORourkes Diner dates back to 1941, when Brians uncle, John ORourke, opened the original restaurant. It was there that a young Brian learned the basics of the business. I peeled potatoes for Uncle John when I was 8, Brian says, and cooked my first omelet at 12. I was one of nine nephews who worked here and knew as a teenager this was exactly what I wanted to do.

In 1976, Brian purchased the diner from his uncle, whose kindness and warmth toward customers was well known in the community. Uncle John was a giant of a man, a great humanitarian and family man who did so much for so many people, ORourke says. He greeted everyone with a hot cup of coffee.

Over the decades, the diner became a favorite hangout for Wesleyan University students and generations of area residents, who came for the great food and warm conversation with the ORourke family.

The diner is so much more than the phenomenal food you usually expect to find only in a five-star restaurant, says Larry Marino, a longtime customer who helped plan and manage the diners restoration. This is a place that nourishes the mind, body and spirit.

Patrons were saddened when a kitchen fire closed the landmark diner in 2006. I was devastated and could not go to work that day, Platt says. With no fire insurance or money to rebuild, ORourke thought he had served his last customer at the beloved eatery.

But my cell phone battery quickly gave out from hundreds of phone calls as people heard about the fire, ORourke recalls. We will rebuild, was the war cry. Middletown wouldnt be Middletown without ORourkes. People put their hearts, love, time and dollars into it.

At first, it took some convincing for ORourke to accept the help. Brian had donated his services to every cause, fed people when they couldnt pay him, and cared deeply for the community, his friend Tom Cushing says. I told him, relax and let people do what they can and want to do for you now.

Within three hours of the fire, customers and friends formed a rebuilding committee to help raise the $300,000 needed to bring the diner back to life. There was a $10,000 anonymous donation and homeless people emptying nickels and dimes from their pockets, ORourke says. It was humbling to experience.

Over the next 15 months the donations kept coming, and reconstruction began in November 2007. ORourkes is an important part of the Wesleyan University experience, says John Biddiscombe, chairman of the universitys physical education department and a member of the rebuilding committee. The timing coordinated with redesigning the dining halls, and the university donated booths, grills, ovens, walk-in freezers, refrigerators, pots and pans.

New and improved, yet familiar and comfortable, ORourkes is back in business, this time with fire insurance and a sprinkler system. The new nine-page menu includes a steamed cheeseburger, 10 varieties of eggs Benedict, 33 different omelets, specialty dishes created and named for patrons, and a few heartfelt words from Brian ORourke: Sincere thanks to all who made this dream a reality. It is an honor to be serving you once again.