WILLSBORO — A venerable eatery for 76 years, the former Sportsman’s Diner has new proprietors and has changed its name and décor.
Drew Reithel and his wife, Ramelie, decided to purchase the establishment, now the Willsboro Diner, and while they’re making improvements, they’re keeping the hometown diner values intact.
An eatery has stood at the location for more than three-quarters of a century, although this is actually the third structure to occupy the space.
“I’m the sixth or seventh owner. It used to be called Murphy’s before it became the Sportsman’s,” Reithel said.
Previous owner helps
A chalkboard proclaims the eatery’s motto, “More than a diner,” as the Reithels feel it is a significant part of the community. In addition to food, it is a place where friends gather and often get the latest news.
Bob Burt, one of the previous owners, gets the griddle hot and coffeemaker perking when he comes in daily around 5:15 a.m. to ready things for the “regulars,” who drift in some 15 minutes later. The frequent pre-dawn patrons wander in through the back door, sit in the dark so as not to attract a passerby actually looking for an early breakfast, and serve themselves.
The diner then opens at 6 when the cooks come in and prepare the normal fare.
“This really is a small-town diner,” Reithel said. “Our business triples during the summer. Sundays are usually our biggest days because many customers come before or after church. When it gets really busy, our regulars help out by serving coffee or clearing the tables.”
According to Bob Lacey, who owed the eatery in the 1980s, “The diner used to be larger and had a pool table when I used to be here. I’ve been here 53 wonderful years.”
Reithel commented that he’s not a sports person.
“I wanted to turn it back to the 60s, but I realize it will always be the Sportsman’s to many,” he said.
The new decor features a red-and-white square pattern on the oil-cloth table coverings as well as gingham curtains, which were specialty ordered from a Vermont firm.
“It was really neat to see people come in and be amazed by the change,” Reithel said. “I think 99.8 percent were positive. The townspeople have been very supportive of me.”
Reithel is saving a space for a tribute wall, which will feature old photographs of Willsboro, the diner and customers. A large photo of the baseball team that had been on display at the dinner was donated by Ed Collins to Willsboro’s nursing home.
If anyone has old photos that would be appropriate for the wall, Reithel said, he would like to scan them for display.
More nostalgia emanates from the speakers as ‘60s rock and roll plays in the background.
Reithel has a lengthy culinary resume. He had been the cook at Westport Central School in the 1980s and later worked at Plattsburgh State as a food-service supervisor for Sodexo as well as at the college’s Chartwell’s dining facility.
In addition, Reithel has had his own catering business as well as the Adirondack BBQ food concession.
“At the diner, I serve the same ribs for which I have become known. I call it ‘Smokin’ Fridays’ and feature my pulled pork for lunch and ribs for dinner.”
Reithel is also contemplating having a buffet once a week starting in the winter.
“I’ve spent my whole life in Willsboro,” he said. “My parents and God-parents owned the Wampum Lodge on Long Pond.”
Waitress Candy Lacey is considered “the anchor” by Reithel.
“We’re all like family. I used to come here every day after school in the late 1970s. Drew didn’t just buy the diner, he bought the staff,” Lacey quipped.
Vesta Spring has been a regular at the establishment for more than 20 years.
“I just retired after 27 years as a bus driver. I would stop in all the time. When I come in here and it’s busy, I just take over and help,” Spring said.
Although it maintains its old-time character, the diner has broached the 21st Century as it features a Wi-Fi connection.
Hours are Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. and Sunday 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Call 963-8399 for additional information.
Email Alvin Reiner at:firstname.lastname@example.org