After Fire, O’Rourke’s Diner Gets Aid Offers

Originally published at Hartford Courant.

O’Rourke’s Diner became a nationally known slice of Americana on the strength of owner/chef Brian O’Rourke’s culinary skill and his compassion for people who were down on their luck, some of whom he hired.

Now, after a fire charred the inside of the 60-year-old Middletown landmark early Thursday and shut it down, a tremendous outpouring of concern and offers of help is flowing the other way — toward O’Rourke, 55, and his crew.

Another Main Street restaurant that’s open only for dinner offered to let O’Rourke do breakfast and lunch there daily, without charging him.

Builders, engineers, architects and lawyers said they’d work free for O’Rourke to help him rebuild; he need only give them the word.

Friends expressed a powerful, palpable need to help O’Rourke in a crush of e-mails to a special website,, and in discussions Friday outside the art deco diner in the city’s North End, its windows boarded, a hint of the pungent odor of smoke hanging in the air.

“We’re just friends and customers, not business people,” said Justus Addiss of Middletown, standing on the sidewalk with his partner, Alison Johnson. “But we’d be happy to contribute financially in any way, and to volunteer to do cleanup work — anything to help Brian. He just has such talent for putting flavors together that work, in a diner setting. I call him the blue-collar gourmet.”

Among diner aficionados, O’Rourke and his diner are revered. As news of the Middletown fire spread across the country Friday, that eclectic community of writers, travelers and preservationists was grieving over the loss.

“Oh, man, the real sad part about it is I always like to point to O’Rourke’s as an example of what you can do with a diner. People think of diners as meatloaf and potatoes. Brian was among the first to break out of that mold and show how creative a diner can be,” said Randy Garbin, publisher of, an Internet magazine that celebrates diners and back-road America.

The O’Rourke’s website, set up immediately after the fire by downtown business leaders Mark Masselli and Jennifer Alexander, got its first post five minutes after it was up and running — from a Wesleyan student traveling in Egypt who, like most of O’Rourke’s regulars, felt a deep connection to the place and to the crew.

By Friday, the site had dozens of posts from people sharing their memories and offering donations of time and money. As of Friday evening, a repository for donations had not been set up.

What ultimately happens with the diner depends entirely on whether O’Rourke decides to carry on the business his uncle began in 1947.

He told The Courant that he doesn’t yet know what he will do. He did not carry fire insurance on the building.

“We told Brian that when he’s ready, we’re going to be very supportive of whatever he decides. There’s a lot of concern in the business community for Brian and his employees,” said Lawrence McHugh, president of the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce.

Out of the swirl of offers and ideas, one possible way to assist O’Rourke was taking shape Friday.

Business leaders spoke with Mayor Sebastian Giuliano about the city’s buying the building — which is on the National Register of Historic Places — and leasing it back to O’Rourke to run. The city’s involvement could make the diner eligible for federal historic preservation funds.

“I suppose it’s just one of the many alternatives we’re looking at,” Giuliano said Friday. “We’re getting e-mails from across the country about O’Rourke’s and there’s going to be no shortage of help locally once we decide on a game plan. I’ll tell you one thing — you can’t just give this up without a fight. It’s a Middletown icon. This is a loss to the North End neighborhood, to the city, to the state.”

City firefighters quickly doused the 2:30 a.m. blaze, triggered by a hamburger steamer that was left on. But the metal dining-car-style restaurant acted like an oven, and the quick-moving, extraordinarily hot and smoky fire caused an estimated $100,000 in damage.

It could cost five times that to rebuild the restaurant to modern fire and building codes, with entryways, seating and bathrooms accessible to people with disabilities.

“We tell people who want to get into projects like these to budget at least $500,000,” Garbin said.

He said the idea of the city’s owning the property was “plausible” but had inherent difficulties. O’Rourke would retain the equipment, the business and the name, but would have to give up a piece of property that has been in his family for decades.

Meanwhile, O’Rourke’s customers retain their memories of the place, hoarding them like gemstones. Addiss shared one:

He and Johnson went across the river to Portland on a summer night three years ago to watch a meteor shower. When it was done, a little after 5 a.m., they decided to get breakfast at their favorite spot.

“We thought we were finally going to eat breakfast at O’Rourke’s without waiting in line. When we got there, we were stunned to see a line stretching down the block. Everyone, it seemed, who had watched the meteor shower had decided to do the same thing we did. Even Brian wasn’t prepared for it. We waited 45 minutes for a table, but it was worth it.”