By Ulrika G. Gerth
---- — For being one of the oldest diners in town, it maintains a low profile. Even owner David Rice concedes many locals have never heard of The Finest Kind. But his regulars swear by the Friday haddock special, the pot roast dinner swimming in gravy, and the greasy air of old-school Newburyport.
Tucked halfway between Cashman Park and the Towle Office Building at 228 Merrimac St., the one-story, gray cinder block building blends into the surroundings. Until recently, Rice did not even have a sidewalk sign. But for close to 23 years, he has shuffled between the grill behind the counter in the small dining area and the cramped kitchen out back.
“Time went by, that’s for sure,” Rice said as another lunch shift came to an end.
Not one to promote himself, Rice, 58, is tall and thin with the hunched posture of someone who has spent half his life toiling over hot stoves. He works seven days a week, serving breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday and breakfast on the weekend. A one-man operation, he has not had a vacation in five years. A trip to Disney World in 2000 with his two daughters is one of few breaks that he can recall.
“It’s hard work and you don’t have much to show for it,” said Kayla Frost, 22, his oldest daughter, who like her sister, Kelsey Rice, 20, has helped out since her early teens, doing dishes and serving customers.
Said Kelsey Rice, “I can’t even picture my life without it being here...I don’t see it going anywhere.”
His cooking skills have earned The Finest Kind a loyal following. Rice puts out a classic selection of blue-collar fare that appeals to construction crews and fishermen, who often are the first to arrive in the mornings.
They know the menu of sloppy joes, chicken pot pie, meatloaf and chowders by heart.
Like other regulars, Janet Desaulniers and Jim Desaulniers, a mother and son, did not have to pick up the menu when, two days before Thanksgiving, they ordered roast turkey dinners.
“I like the community feel,” Janet Desaulniers said. “You can just walk down the street and be with your neighbors.”
Perched on one of the counter stools, James Bentley, a graphic designer, said he, at one point, came every day and also likes the atmosphere of a true local joint.
“Chains try too hard and still seem impersonal,” he said. “Anything with potatoes and gravy works for me, but you’ve got to like green beans to come here.”
Then there are old-timers like Rice’s former landlord Joe Donahue, 85, to whom the hearty meals evoke memories of a city that decades ago teemed with mom and pop stores. He bought the building in 1964 when he and his brother needed space to store equipment for their electrical contracting business. They added on 50 feet and helped a relative open a coffee shop up front.
But Donahue’s recollection stretches back even further.
“It was built a long, long time ago when I was a kid,” he said over a pot roast lunch. “Years ago, we used to jump the fence and steal the guy’s apples.”
Built to house The Great Pacific & Atlantic Tea Company, the country’s first grocery chain, it eventually turned into a series of different bakeries, coffee shops, and eventually a restaurant, Donahue said. Searching his memory, he recalled Friday nights so crowded that it was hard to get a seat, intense political discussions, and two hostesses who roller-skated among the tables — one dressed in a corset, the other reminiscent of a Cuban rebel.
He passed on ownership 10 years ago to his two sons, Michael and Daniel Donahue, after several health scares (”You can’t kill a good Irishman!”), but said he regularly receives offers to sell the 15,000-square-foot lot overlooking the soccer fields and the Merrimack River.
“Why would I want to sell?” he said. “I don’t need the money.”
Rice took over The Finest Kind in 1990. Then he was in his mid-30s, working odd jobs, including some kitchen stints. He adopted the menu and said not much has changed since.
The room holds a half dozen tables on the right, counter stools line up on the left. On permanent display are paintings by local artist Herbert Crooks, whose illustration of eggs and bacon seated around a table amuses diners and is one of a few which belongs to Rice himself. The radio is always tuned to 92.5 The River and a basket holds lollipops for young customers.
“I didn’t realize it would be that much work,” said Rice, who walks back and forth from his apartment down the street. “I don’t know, it’s a job. It is what it is.”
Asked how long he will keep cooking, he replied, “Until something better comes along.”