Leo always visited Johnny’s Luncheonette in Newton alone. Over time, he became a familiar face for co-owner Karen Masterson.
One mid-summer’s day, Leo showed up wearing a down jacket.
“My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s disease,” says Masterson. “I’m sensitive to the early confusion stage.”
Not long after, he pulled out a piece of cardboard. The cardboard had contact information for his most important touchstones: the YMCA, Veteran’s Taxi, his daughter — and Johnny’s. He handed the card to Masterson and asked for a ride to an address scrawled on the page.
Not wanting to bundle Leo off to an unknown address in a cab, Masterson phoned his daughter, who confirmed his home address.
“I feel so strongly that this is how we need to care for each other,” Masterson says. “Restaurants need to make that phone call, be that place, see when someone needs a little extra. If you’ve been gifted with a long life, hopefully people in your orbit will do a little more. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Lately, news from the restaurant world has been short on beautiful things. Formerly untouchable chefs like Mario Batali and John Besh have fallen spectacularly from grace amid accusations of sexual harassment. Earlier this month, five kitchen workers filed a sexual harassment lawsuit based on experiences at the Faneuil Hall McCormick & Schmick’s. Who’s next? Where’s next? Restaurants aren’t always a safe place to be. Sometimes they’re scary, discriminatory, dangerous.
But sometimes they’re safe havens, too, and steadying influences for people who need it most, warm places in the literal — and figurative — cold.
That’s what happened at the Black Rose near Faneuil Hall. The Irish pub has turned into a hangout for Phyllis, who lives alone in the North End. When Phyllis came in complaining that her TV had broken — which meant that she couldn’t watch her beloved cartoons — the staff pooled money to buy her a new one. When it’s snowy, someone will drive her back to her apartment.
“It’s just a minute away, but it could take her a half-hour in the ice and snow,” says bartender Christine O’Neill.
Staffers at the Black Rose met Phyllis when she began coming in with her mother, says O’Neill. Soon, though, her mother passed away. Phyllis kept visiting, even when she had cancer and needed a walker for tumors in her legs.
“She comes for an hour or two, has fish and chips, and always sits at the same table,” O’Neill says. “She’s everyone’s friend. She calls us her children. She brings us candy that she gets at the bank.”
Another Black Rose server sometimes buys Phyllis dinner.
“She’s on her own. We pay the check for her. You don’t know what her situation is completely, you know what I mean?” says O’Neill.
The relationship works both ways. These restaurants are sanctuaries for customers — and an emotional boost for workers, too.
“Phyllis always lightens up our day. She comes in and says, ‘Hello, my darling!’ ” O’Neill says.
For staffers, these customers feel like family. Mike Tirella is a regular at Trattoria Il Panino, always with a full-bodied wine and chicken parmesan. He drives to the North End from the boulevard in Revere and sits at the bar to chat with Leo Rodriguez, his favorite bartender. Tirella is 80 and Rodriguez is 28, but they have plenty to talk about.
“These people are like my family. I see them more than I see my family. You know how life is. You barely see your family once a week. But I see Mike three or four times a week. I walk in and want to give him a hug. If I take a day off, he’s worried,” Rodriguez says.
“You feel like you belong. You feel like you belong to the place, and it means a lot,” says Tirella.
Across town, Richard Ray describes himself as the “Norm” of the Butcher Shop in the South End, as much a fixture as its tagliatelle with bolognese. Ray lives two blocks away and has been visiting since it opened in 2003. Now, he has his own designated seat at the bar on Friday and Saturday evenings.
“There’s a group of friends who I spent most of my time with before the Butcher Shop opened,” says Ray, who is 78 and lives alone. “When you reach a point with your friends when you complete their sentences, you’ve run out of things to say.”
So he decided to spice things up at the new local watering hole.
“I found it comfortable, a way to meet new people,” he says. A manager greeted him with a glass of sherry, and he never looked back. Now he’s there every weekend before 5 p.m., chatting about books, TV, and whatever’s streaming on Netflix.
“I’m a creature of extreme habit. Everyone knows I’m not available for anything else because I’m at the Butcher Shop on Friday or Saturday. It’s like a second family. I don’t want to say I’m their old grandfather — but maybe their old uncle,” he says.
He’s especially fond of Saturday night bartender Steven Gilarde and his wife, Kate, a former Butcher Shop employee who’s now at O Ya. The couple sometimes goes out to dinner with Ray; he’s invited them to his birthday parties.
“We care a lot about him. My wife even set up a rule with him: If you won’t show up on a Friday or Saturday, you have to call so we won’t worry.”
And he does.
In a busy world, certain restaurants serve as sanctuaries and safeguards for people. It’s not just about the food; it’s about the companionship, the pure human connection.
That’s what happened for Rita Manor, a Brookline icon who used to make the rounds in her walker, popping in at local businesses and sassing her favorite owners.
Steven Peljovich owns Michael’s Deli in Coolidge Corner, one of Manor’s chosen haunts. Over time, she became a surrogate grandmother for him, busting his chops if there wasn’t enough honey in her tzimmes.
“She lived in her own apartment in Brookline by herself. I don’t know how she was so happy, because she had nobody. She’d cheer us all up, bring us presents on birthdays and holidays. I’d fight with her in the winter, the way you’d fight with your grandmother: ‘Rita, stop walking! It’s snowing!’ ” he with a laugh.
Finally, concerned for her health, Peljovich got her phone number. During bad weather, he’d call and ask her what she wanted delivered for lunch. He bought her a new walker from Belmont Medical Supply when her insurance wouldn’t pay for it, trading it for food.
“She hung a Michael’s Deli sign from it,” he says.
Then Manor stopped visiting. Her special table was empty. No more wisecracks. No more meatloaf or chicken noodle soup, no more bread toasted so black that Peljovich’s toaster nearly caught fire.
“I literally started calling hospitals because I wanted to bring her food,” Peljovich says. Finally, he tracked her down at a Boston hospital. She would be transferred to hospice in Chestnut Hill, he was told.
So he drove out to see her one last time.
“I’ll never forget: It was a horribly snowy day. She loved to read. So me and the staff, we put together a bunch of books, food. I had no idea how bad her condition was. I said to the desk, ‘I’m here to see Rita.’ The woman said, ‘She’s not seeing anyone, but I’ll get her this stuff.’ I left my card. The folks called me the next day to let me know she’d passed.”
But, in a way, Rita still visits the deli, even though she’ll be gone two years next month.
“She’d sit at the very first table. There’s a picture of my father here, and her picture is the only other one I have,” Peljovich says. “I have a lot of regulars. But I’ll never forget Rita.”