Last Call at Joe’s Diner

The end of an era at the quintessential American diner.

Last Call at Joe’s Diner

The last night under Joe Sorrentino's ownership, December 30, 2000. Photo courtesy of Joe Sorrentino.

“I used to tell people they were in the Twilight Zone,” says Joe Sorrentino, former owner and operator of Joe’s Diner, a tiny eatery in the blue-collar town of Lee, Massachusetts. Since 1939, the restaurant has been a fixture in Lee, and over the years it has come to be regarded as the quintessential American diner. In part, the establishment owes its fame to Norman Rockwell, who, in 1958, chose it as the inspiration for “The Runaway,” one of his most enduring images. But Joe’s owes most of its notoriety to Sorrentino and family. Through a combination of dogged determination and old-fashioned hard work, together they realized the patriarch’s vision of a friendly neighborhood place that simply offered good food at low prices.

Perhaps most remarkable about Sorrentino’s 45-year tenure was that the diner seemed to resist the passage of time. From 1955-2000, the atmosphere, décor, and even the prices remained almost unchanged. In fact, Joe’s was so consistent and so reliable for so long that the idea of any change—much less a Joe’s Diner sans Joe—became nearly unfathomable to many of its patrons.

Thus it’s safe to say that Sorrentino’s retirement and attempted sale of the diner at the end of last year caused considerable consternation among locals and tourists alike. The year 2001 has brought a heretofore unthinkable amount of change and instability—an unsettled ownership situation, new furnishings, and an extended period in which the diner was closed—which has alienated many of Joe’s most loyal customers. It’s clearly the end of an era, and while Sorrentino has no regrets, he’s not particularly happy about the changes or the diner’s uncertain future.

When Sorrentino bought Joe’s for $5,500 in 1955, he envisioned running the place for ten years before moving on to something else. Instead he spent his first thirty-three years there working virtually nonstop. From 1955-88 the diner stayed open 24/7 except for sixteen hours on Sundays and a handful of major holidays, with Sorrentino and sons working up to eighteen hours a day. Beginning in the late ’80s he cut back the hours somewhat—with his wife Theresa spending more and more time behind the counter—but not enough to traumatize the customers. Along the way, Joe’s became famous for its unwavering daily specials—Monday (roast beef), Tuesday (roasted turkey, chicken breast, meat loaf), Wednesday (fresh roasted pork), Thursday (corned beef), Friday (baked macaroni and fish), and Saturday (Virginia ham)—along with a reputation for good service and a caring, personal touch.

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