WEST BRATTLEBORO — On April 7, Brattleboro's beloved Chelsea Royal Diner, having already been closed for three months, made a post on its Facebook page.
“Don't worry,” the announcement said, “we will announce when we are back in action[.] I know it's hard to wait [heart emoji] we appreciate your patience.”
But this past weekend, owners Todd Darrah and Janet Picard announced that the popular restaurant will not reopen again - at least not under their management.
“With heavy hearts, we unfortunately will not be reopening the iconic Chelsea Royal Diner this year,” Darrah and Picard said in an email. “We were very fortunate to have been a major part of the community for 32 years, serving locals and tourists alike. We appreciate all of our dedicated staff over the years [who] were the main reason for the diner's success, along with, of course, our devoted customers. It is with much sadness that we will be disappointing so many diner and ice cream lovers, but the time has come to retire.”
Darrah, 65, and Picard, 61, now spend the majority of their time in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The reason for their optimistic Facebook post was that the diner, which has been for sale for five years, had a buyer ready to take over in May.
But the deal fell through at the last minute, and Darrah and Picard decided to call it quits.
“We are perplexed why no one has taken the opportunity to take stewardship of this busy, fun, hectic, community landmark,” the couple said. “Hopefully, there is someone out there.”
The elegant and Deco-ish Royal Diner was built in 1939 as Worcester Lunch Car No. 736. It started its life on the corner of Main Street and Walnut Street, across from what is now Brooks Memorial Library, moving up the street in 1948 to 225 Main St.
The diner and its contents were sold at auction in 1968. According to a 1979 Reformer story, a buyer from New Hampshire made the purchase and reclaimed some equipment. The Worcester Lunch Car sat behind a garage on Route 9 for years.
It was moved in 1978 to Landmark Hill, and then to its present location on Route 9 in West Brattleboro in 1987.
In its long life, it has had several iterations, including time as a fine dining restaurant. It also picked up its current first name, “Chelsea,” from a Joni Mitchell song.
Darrah, who had already had a successful restaurant career in Wilmington, started running it in May of 1990. According to town property records, he has owned it since 1999.
“I eventually bought the property through a very generous and understanding landlady named Carol Levin, who has since passed away,” Darrah said in a joint interview with Picard. “She helped me, and she was a big part of my success.”
The diner certainly has been successful. On its five acres was the diner and its spacious parking lot, a barn, a small rental apartment building, an orchard, a spacious garden, and a chicken coop where the fresh eggs for the omelets came from.
Darrah used local grass-fed beef and local products like honey and maple syrup. The meals were kept affordable, and the line was sometimes out the door.
He had known Picard, a well-known artist who was running a bakery in West Townshend, for years before they became a couple.
“I made the wedding cake for his first wedding,” Picard said, laughing. “The joke is that it's like the movie, Like Water for Chocolate. I put a hex on the cake.”
Once they were a couple, in 2000, Picard began working alongside Darrah in the restaurant, although for many years she also had a painting studio in the rental house. She added a $30,000 ice cream maker and introduced many creative ice cream flavors to the menu, chief among them a Mayan chocolate that she made with cinnamon, fresh nutmeg, and a touch of cayanne pepper.
At its peak, the kitchen was serving its famous breakfasts plus lunches and dinners seven days a week, closing only for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and employing 30 people. It was like that right up until the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down.
The year before the pandemic began, the couple bought a food truck, so they were able to keep on serving food - outdoors.
“We were thinking of putting it outside with the ice cream stand, and selling burgers and dogs from there so the kitchen didn't get swamped like it used to all the time,” Picard said. “And it was like a blessing in disguise, because when Covid started we couldn't open up inside. So we just ran the food truck the past three seasons, until we could open at full capacity again.”
When the diner opened again, half of the seating had been removed. With fewer guests, the staff's tips diminished, and they left for other jobs.
“It wasn't worth it for them,” Picard said. “And they just moved on. One of them worked there for 30 years. Some worked there for 20, 15, 10 years. And they all moved on. The staff that we have now has stayed with us. And we trird to hire new cooks and we [didn't] get anyone.
“That's why we were closed a couple of days a week. And we stopped doing dinners. And then this year, we tried doing dinners on Fridays and Saturday nights, and it wasn't anything special.”
In their formal statement, the couple said, “The government funding we received allowed us to operate the best we could during Covid and 2022, even with limited seating protocols in the beginning. However, having to shut down two days per week in order to not overwork our limited staff, and increase in food costs, increase in utilities, increase in wages, along with a decrease in consumer spending, and then factoring in our ages, we are ready to let it go.”
The diner was last open on Dec. 31.
“But I want to make note that it is a successful place,” Picard said. “We're not closing because it's a loser. We're closing because it's run its course. I mean, if we were 20 years younger, we'd definitely reinvest in it.”
For Darrah, who started working at 14 and says he spent half his life in the Chelsea Royal's kitchen, it is a bittersweet but necessary next step.
“I have no torch to pass on to my kids,” Darrah said. “They have their careers, and they've moved on. One is a captain in the U.S. Army. And one is the general manager of four restaurants in the Burlington area. It's hard to lure my kids back to Brattleboro. So there's no legacy to carry on.”
The couple put the diner on the market five years ago for $900,000. That included the diner and everything in it, the five acres of land, the gardens, the orchard, the rental house, the chicken coop, and the barn. The land is deeded for agriculture, so a new owner could add pigs and cows to the chickens if they so desired. But the house, barn, and coop have now been sold off separately.
Darrah and Picard imagined that once the diner was put on the market, it would be immediately scooped up. They still don't understand why it hasn't been. It's now on the market for $300,000.
“It's not that expensive,” Picard said. “It's $300,000. It comes with my ice cream maker, and there's the soft serve machines, plus all the equipment, and there's new stuff from our government money,” Picard said.
While they wait for a buyer, the couple are establishing a new life on the Cape.
“There's a community here, and I am a member of the art association here,” Picard said. “I have been in a lot of shows and I won Best in Show in one of them. But there's a feeling a guilt about not reopening the diner. Everyone's going to be disappointed.”
Darrah wants to take a year off to rethink his way through retirement.
“Janet has been fulfilling my dreams for the last 20-plus years,” he said. “I want to be her partner, and help her fulfill her dream now.”
“She can paint forever,” Darrah said. “I can't do what I did forever.”