I’m Silver Topped Out

Now the Silver Top becomes the latest diner purchased that breaks our cardinal rule for such things: Don’t buy a diner unless you have a location for it. While the Silver Top itself shows that the rule is no absolute, the tale this diner has spun since its removal from a still-empty lot in Providence in 2002 continues with its new owners, the Cerrone family.

First, I congratulate the Cerrone family, but not with the joy I’d typically express with this transition. The Silver Top saga, which could fill a good size book, involves characters and issues on both sides that all failed to properly steward this historic structure. At the end of the day, I have always sided with the interests of preservation, and between the Cities of Providence and Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and Pat Brown, the tug of war has almost wrecked this fine building, and I see plenty of blame to go around.

It all started with the late Mayor Buddy Cianci’s plan to turn the industrial area around the Silver Top’s home into Providence’s version of Boston’s Back Bay, and the diner did not fit into this scheme. The diner’s actual owner at that time, Bernie Buoncevello told Roadside he sat in on a meeting with the mayor, his development people, and Daniel Zilka, who at that time had already begun his tax-receipt-creation scheme of building a diner graveyard by pawning off phony tax receipts to unsuspecting donors using self-created appraisals.

Luckily for Bernie and Pat, who ran the diner for him, the city of Pawtucket offered of a piece of land (albeit in remote neighborhood) for Pat to install the diner. To help out, renown restaurant architect Morris Nathanson offered his services, and the city would put up money to get Pat started. When Buoncevello gifted the diner, everything seemed to fall into place.

Things soon went south from there. At the first neighborhood meeting after the diner moved which I attended (no one from Dan’s Diner Salvage bothered to show up in support), the residents clearly rejected the idea of a diner in their midst operating the late-night shift, hours that the Silver Top famously plied and that Pat wanted to continue. Breakfast and lunch, fine, but no graveyard. No one would budge.

One should keep in mind that I-95 had carved up the neighborhood long ago. It hadn’t seen any real development in twenty to thirty years and in my opinion at the time, I believed a good, well-run late night diner would likely provide a stabilizing influence on the area. Pat had a reputation for toughness, and tolerated no shenanigans at the Providence location.

Before long, Nathanson bowed out citing intransigence on Pat’s part. Then depending on who you speak with, city either granted or loaned Pat money for development costs. Months turned to years with nothing happening. Pat objected to the plans provided by the city’s development office and still insisted on opening late night. The city eventually demanded its money back and the matter headed to court, where it festered for nearly ten years.

Sparing the reader the gory details of the court proceedings, where Pawtucket hardly seemed to act in good faith, and Rhode Island being Rhode Island, Pat never really stood a chance, especially since she had no money to fight this. She relied mostly on generous pro bono legal services. In the end, the diner ended up on the auction block.

Before auction, the city retained Richard Gutman to provide it with an appraisal, who valued the diner at about $25,000. When I saw this, it raised a red flag. Richard had recently retired from his position at the diner Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum, and hadn’t publicly involved himself in the restoration of any diner for the better part of a decade. In that decade, I’ve watched the market for vintage diners collapse.

Out across the landscape, one can now find a dozen or more failed diner projects, with some well-kept units sitting high on cribbing, going nowhere fast. In light of this and the fact that it has become nearly impossible to restore and profitably operate a small vintage diner — especially in the Northeast — a five-figure appraisal bespeaks of a certain ignorance of the market’s current realities.

Hog River Grill/Aetna Diner
Hog River Grill/Aetna Diner — free for the taking.

In Hartford right now stands the Aetna Diner, which represents the most beautiful realization of diner design in the history of Paramount diners and probably of the entire industry. It closed over ten years ago, and the owner cannot give it away. He wants to tear it down, but in an unusual twist, the city won’t let him. As much as I would hate to see the Aetna demolished, the literal definition of worthlessness is something that no one wants.

If the magnificence of the Aetna has no value, then where does Gutman get off valuing the near-wreck of the Silver Top at $25,000? It naturally leads to the next question of who will lead the diner’s restoration?

Had Pawtucket come to me, someone who intimately followed and documented the diner market for nearly 30 years, I would have told them the diner was worth fifteen dollars, or whatever anyone happened to have in their wallet at the time they walked into City Hall. Get rid of it.

The Cerrones got fleeced, pure and simple. The Silver Top was a twenty-dollar flip job any way you cut it. The diner will likely be more of a liability than an asset for whatever restaurant type they have in mind. It will cost them close to $300,000 to complete a proper restoration. They could instead build a well-designed, code-compliant, modern restaurant space for about half that amount.

Pat fought the good fight. I know Pat and consider her a friend of Roadside. She’s currently laying claim to the Silver Top name, but my advice to her is to move on. It’s over. She’ll never be able to defend that claim anyway.

She probably should have stopped this fight long before this. I feel for her, mainly because I know how it feels to see your life’s dream get taken from you, but considering the ultimate cost of this battle, the hours lost, the money spent, and the diversion from other missed opportunities, just get on with life.

And if you can, get the hell out of Rhode Island.