I have dined at swanky steakhouses, cheek to diamond with women whose earrings cost as much as my home. I have run my chopsticks across pristinely sliced fish whisked in from Japan; I have swirled rare wines in dimly lit dining rooms; I have seen the promised land of thinly shaved truffles drifting like snowflakes onto delicate strands of al dente pasta.
But you know what? On my birthday, I drove up the Lowell Connector to a nondescript restaurant on Gorham Street across from St. Patrick’s Cemetery for chicken with pineapples and pie on a trolley. It’s called Good Thymes. If you’re from Lowell, you know it. If you’re not from Lowell, you’re missing out.
Good Thymes was my grandparents’ favorite hangout. They came from an era that prized warm dinner rolls and nice relish trays. They were looking for tasty food and good prices; bonus points for running into cousins, neighbors, and everyone from Sacred Heart along the way. Whose funeral were you coming from? Did you see the prices on chicken at Market Basket this week? It was their neighborhood “Cheers,” with a soundtrack straight out of the Eisenhower administration.
When my grandmother entered D’Youville Manor nursing home and my grandfather was left alone in his triple-decker on Andrews Street with what would become lung cancer, I wondered how to help. I lived in Washington, D.C., at the time, and the thought of him sitting alone in his recliner, listening to the police scanner and looking over at my Nana’s empty chair, pretty much killed me. And what was he eating? He wouldn’t go to Good Thymes without her.
So I called the restaurant. Did they do takeout? No, an apologetic hostess told me. Way too busy for that. But then I seemed to remember that my cousin Dennis’s wife’s friend’s brother — or was it brother’s friend? In Lowell, who knows? — was the owner. I took a gulp of Chardonnay from my fridge and asked to speak to him.
Jim Boutin got on the phone. I explained the situation. My grandmother wasn’t cooking; my grandfather wasn’t feeling so hot. He loved Good Thymes. He needed a hearty meal. Could they possibly put some food in a bag and run it over? It was just around the corner, up Moore Street and a left at Fay-McCabe Funeral Home. I’d give him my credit card number. Charge it to me. Charge the whole dining room’s meals to me. Just surprise him, please. Let yourself in through the screen door on the back porch. Bang on the kitchen window, the one with all the hummels on the shelf. He’ll hear you.
No problem, he said. I know Paul Durkin. Anything for Paul. What did I want? I put in an order for a roast turkey dinner with gravy and mashed potatoes. Throw in some lemon meringue pie, too. He told me he’d deliver it himself, and he did. Within 30 minutes, my grandfather was enjoying a dinner (“piping hot,” he later noted) from his favorite restaurant and a friendly chat, too. He told everyone about that delivery — all his brothers, his sister, the ladies at D’Youville Manor.
That was in 2007 or so. Now I live 25 minutes away, and every now and then, I make the pilgrimage up Gorham Street. This time, my parents and brother met me there so I could order a $13.99 chicken cutlet with onions, peppers, pineapples, and sweet-and-sour sauce, perhaps the most exotic meal my Nana ever ate. This is the type of place where you get two free sides, so I selected an ice cream scoop of smooth mashed potatoes and creamy coleslaw. For dessert? A wobbly triangle of chocolate mousse pie with a fat layer of peanut butter and graham cracker crust, pointed at from a trolley.
My mom wondered if she’d gone to high school with the hostess. My dad then asked the hostess if she went to Lowell High. (No, Carol is from Reading, but we’ll forgive her.) My brother, a habitué of places like Charlie’s Kitchen, ate his broiled scallops in three bites. In the middle distance, Neil Sedaka crooned. Did I want my leftovers packed to go in a Styrofoam box? You bet.
I get to eat at a lot of fancy places. Many of them are exceptional. But restaurants like Good Thymes are why I love writing about food. Are the breaded onion rings “gourmet-ish,” as my Nana would say? No. Are the tables Instagram-worthy? Let’s just say there’s no need for your “1977” filter here. That’s why I love it. There’s no pretense. Sometimes, straightforward works: fair prices, servers who remember you, and even an owner who will hand-deliver a turkey dinner to an 85-year-old man on a cold winter night. Sometimes, it really is just that simple.
After my parents pulled away, I drove across the street to St. Patrick’s Cemetery. My grandparents are buried there, a few rows in. When the sun hits just right you can almost see their favorite table.
1278 Gorham St., Lowell, 978-441-2799, www.goodthymesfamilyrestaurant.com