They are taking the last steps over that wooden bridge into the dining room, lingering over the black-and-white pictures of famous guests like actress Hedy Lamarr and Richard Nixon, smearing farewell pats of butter on steaming popovers.
Of all the pilgrims mourning the end of Anthony’s Pier 4 on the South Boston waterfront, local Albanian-Americans may be hurting the most. The restaurant and its late, legendary creator have long been the beating heart of their community.
And for a recent generation of Albanian immigrants, Pier 4 has special significance. It was their first leg up on American life, the place where they were sure to find work, even if they spoke no English and had no experience. Being Albanian was qualification enough for Anthony Athanas, the owner who practically lived at the restaurant.
“We all had to start somewhere,” says Leo Keka, who worked at Pier 4 for seven years after arriving in 1990. “When I came to Boston I heard, ‘Oh yeah, go to Anthony’s. He hires all Albanians.’ ”
Everybody knew this: The cousins and aunts and friends who welcomed these new arrivals to the city; the pastors at the Albanian Orthodox churches in South Boston who sent armies of supplicants to Athanas’s dining room; the Massport workers at Logan, who kept the restaurant’s number handy for arriving Albanians looking for work.
Keka was among the first in a huge wave fleeing the struggling Balkan country in the early 1990s, as its repressive Communist regime fell and decades of isolation ended. Athanas had arrived much earlier, sailing here in 1915, at age 4. He began working in restaurants at 13, going from tending stoves to waiting tables to owning his own places. At its peak, Pier 4 was one of the most successful restaurants in America. Athanas became a legend in Boston, a demigod among fellow Albanians.
“I remember walking into Anthony’s and the old man was sitting there,” Keka said. “He could tell I was Albanian the minute I walked in, and he called me over.”
Keka, a farm boy, was overwhelmed by the huge restaurant, with its carved wooden figureheads, white tablecloths, and pictures of famous politicians and actors. Hired on the spot to work as a busboy, he didn’t have the black shoes he needed, so Athanas found him a pair – so small they made his feet bleed. But Keka made $20 that first night – enough to buy himself a pair in the right size. He was on his way.
“My whole family back in Albania survived with that restaurant,” Keka said.
Hundreds of arrivals followed him. For them, Pier 4 was a crash course in America.
“Every newcomer would go through there like it was a university,” said Agron Gjerasi, an engineer who arrived in 1993. “We learned so many things there.” New employees picked up English fast and — because Athanas loved Cape Verdean immigrants almost as much as Albanians — learned how to get along with people who were different from themselves.
“At the end of the day, he’d come and ask me, one of a hundred employees, ‘Did you make enough money today?’ ” said Eduart Lela, now a manager at Herb Chambers who arrived in 1998. “He had his eye on everything. . . . He taught me to be a better person.”
Athanas died in 2005, at 93. In the next week or two, the restaurant for which he was best-known will close after 50 years (outposts in Swampscott and Yarmouth Port live on).
Lately, fewer Albanians have found their way to the waterfront looking for work. Recent arrivals tend to be less in need of restaurant jobs: They come with better educations, and more resources. But the network remains. Keka, who now owns Alba, a big restaurant in Quincy, has been hearing from some Pier 4 employees looking for jobs.
For old time’s sake, Keka went back to his former workplace a few nights ago and sat one last time among the tables he once cleared.
“It’s very sad,” he said. “That place changed a lot of lives.”