New owner for venerable Park Lunch

The Park Lunch on Merrimac Street in Newburyport has been sold.JIM VAIKNORAS/Staff photo

NEWBURYPORT — The Park Lunch, culinary fiefdom of Mike and Jean Doyle for almost 40 years, has been sold.

The buyer is Dan Wilmot, a longtime employee who has been acting as manager in recent years.

The new owner said he will “change nothing,” adding that “Mike built this place into a successful business, and everything will stay the same.”

Mike Doyle, who signed closing papers about a week ago, said, “It was time. I’m going to take it easy and we'll see how things play out.

“Running a restaurant is not an easy way to make money, and now there is time for something else.”

Jean Doyle, his wife, said, “It’s been 37 years, all day, every day.”

The Merrimac Street pub was a sports bar before there were sports bars; to wit, the walls have been festooned with athletic memorabilia and school pennants for decades. Now several televisions broadcast the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and every other competitive endeavor that features a moving sphere.

Middle-aged men have been known to bring in their grandchildren to show them their pictures on the wall — when they were young, vital and in a sports uniform.

Mike Doyle spent much of his time as a genial host, greeting guests and ever-willing to talk about the past.

A local who graduated from Newburyport High School in the mid-’60 before going on to Suffolk University, Doyle functioned as an earnest oracle who kept the flame of the local athletic scene flickering.

The number of times aging athletes have replayed long-ago rivalries in his presence cannot be tabulated.

“Park Lunch has been a great place to meet up with people,” said Roger Fuller, a onetime NHS athlete who went into teaching and coaching. “Coaches I knew from other communities would come for the good food and the friendly atmosphere.

“My wife, Judy, meets her sisters for lunch on Saturdays. If you are local, you see people you know.”

Wilmot, the new owner, has risen from the ranks like a freshman scrub finally reaching all-state status.

Also a Newburyport native, he started as a dishwasher in 1984 and worked his way through numerous positions including bartender, kitchen chief and finally acting manager.

“After high school, I went to the University of New Hampshire, the cooking school there,” said Wilmot, 45. “At that time I thought about owning my own place.

“I have been doing the kitchen and day-to-day managing for years, and this sale has been in the works for some time. I’m excited to actually take over.”

The pine-paneled restaurant has looked much the same for four decades, but it had an unscheduled facelift in 2004 — mandated by a smoky, off-hours fire that started in the basement and rose to the kitchen. No one was injured.

Local lore holds that some of the pennants were lost, but almost all the old photos were heroically saved.

The restaurant was rebuilt and refashioned. Because zoning ordinances required it to maintain its original footprint, it stayed about the same, just newer and cleaner.

Today it offers 89 seats and is operated by about 21 full-time employees.

In informal interviews with several waitresses and bartenders, all predicted that nothing will change at “The Lunch.”

Perhaps things won’t change inside the everybody-knows-your-name retreat, but life will certainly be different for Mike Doyle.

At the least, he leaves with great memories.

“One thing I will remember is our great staff,” he said. “We have had terrific workers in all parts of the restaurant, and most have stayed for many years.

“We offered good food and drinks at fair prices, and running the restaurant put me into contact with wonderful people from all walks of life, and from all over this region and the world.

“I know I will miss the people that made the Park Lunch a place where people liked to spend time.”

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