On a recent weekday, Joel Richards began his morning like most workdays over the past 30-plus years. 

He walked into Gary’s Handy Lunch on lower Thames Street in Newport minutes before its 5 a.m. opening. He put on a pot of coffee and spread potatoes out over the grill to make home fries.

 “I’m the chief cook and bottle washer,” he said, laughing.

His sister Leanne Hamilton entered a few minutes later. 

Richards and Hamilton have been working at the diner owned by their father, Gary Hooks, since they were teens, along with their sister, Tina DuBreuil, brother, David Hooks, sister, Jonelle Draper, and extended family members.

“Every single one of us, all my nieces and nephews. All of our kids, just everyone has worked here,” Hamilton said. “We’ve had people that I’ve worked with over the years that stayed a little time and then some have stayed a long, long time.”

Gary’s Handy Lunch served its last customers and closed its doors at 465 Thames Street for good on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023, after more than 55 years in business. The Handy, as locals call it, had been a beloved eatery, where customers could get good food at a good price. And perhaps, most important, many said they felt like family.

Gary Hooks, 81, bought the place, on a handshake, when he was 26.

“I just come in one day and said to the wife, why don’t your husband sell me this?” Hooks said. “And she said, ‘Gary, why don’t you go talk to him. He does want to sell it.’ So I talked to him, and I bought it the next day. On a handshake.”

At the time, Hooks had no experience running a restaurant and had spent his early adult life in the United States Marine Corps.

“My Dad was a Marine,” Hamilton said. “My mom didn’t like him not being around. So she told him it was either the Marines, or her. And he picked her, of course.”

Hooks had a friend who was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, who convinced Hooks to come to Newport, rather than return to Pennsylvania, where Hooks was born. He got a job at Vernon Court Junior College. He bought the restaurant, The Handy Lunch, when he was still working at the college.

At first he let others run the diner while he continued to work at the college and learn the restaurant trade.

He and his wife, Mary, started with 12 stools and five tables. They eventually expanded to seat about 75 people. The diner was known for its classic, black-and-white square floor tiles and plenty of red accents, including red vinyl-covered bar stools and Coca-Cola neon signs and refrigerators. A jukebox with a hand-written “closed” sign was tucked behind the door at the entrance.

“I have a lot of regulars, which I really appreciate. And I depend on them,” Hooks said. “Anything that comes in the summer is all extra.”

In the weeks after Gary Hooks announced his decision to close, plenty of faithful and first-time customers packed the diner. It had always been crowded on the weekends and during the summer. This winter, people came to have one last meal and say farewell to the family.

“You were slammed yesterday, huh?” one customer said.

The place was also full of photos and shared memories.

 “I used to come down for regattas–This goes back 30 or more years–and have breakfast here at Gary’s Handy Lunch,” said Paul Koch, of East Greenwich. “I’d come here almost every morning for breakfast. I did that every summer, for 25 years at least.”

Koch said when he learned Gary’s was closing, he and his friend and fellow sailor, Larry Higgins, came down for one last meal.

“I walked in the door and sat down and the first thing she said to me was ‘shall I bring you your coffee milk,’” Koch said. “This place is an institution. It’s going to be missed by everybody.”

Debi and Bill Moriarty, of Newport, joined their friends, Ed and Mary Ferreira, of Portsmouth, in a booth for lunch. Debi and Mary had tuna melts. Bill had a BLT on white bread. Ed had a cheeseburger, his favorite.

“We’ve been coming since Tina was 14,” Debi said. “It’s like family. We know all of the waitresses and we know Gary and Joel.”

Debi and Mary would come together at least once a week for lunch when they worked at a Newport dental office. They hadn’t seen each other as often since Mary retired, so it was a special gathering for the long-time friends.

Debi and Bill Moriarty had a tradition of coming every Sunday after church.

“Oh I remember bringing our kids, and then we had grandkids and they all came,” Debi said. “Sometimes we’d have to put two or three tables together if we were all here at once.”

Bruce and Mimi Bartlett, of Newport, grabbed a booth by the front window.  Bruce remembered they would come down for “the best fish and chips” on Friday nights. They’d stop by the Handy before home basketball games when their son played.

Mimi remembered walking down for a cup of coffee with her friend every morning for four years while their kids were in high school.

“This is a cross-section of Newport,” Mimi said. “You see people, you know, from all walks of life at Gary’s. Some of the Bellevue crowd is here and construction workers. It’s just a nice mix. It’s what Newport used to be and should be. It’s special. I don’t know what they’ll do to replace it.”

The family members had their share of memories.

Richards remembered St. Patrick’s Day parades. Hamilton had fond childhood memories.

“When I was little, my mom had to work,” she said. “She would depend on the customers to bring me to school and pick me up. So it was mostly fishermen. They would pick me up and take me.”

They would always make a detour to the candy store or the convenience store that sold ice cream for little Leanne.

“I had a really good family life,” Hamilton said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better mother or father at all. I’m very, very blessed.”

The extended Hooks family members all admit it will be bittersweet once the doors close for the final time. 

“It’s not a happy time,” Gary Hooks said. “But time takes a toll on you. That’s why I decided the time was now.”

Richards had been coming to work since he walked to Gary’s Handy Lunch after class from Thompson Middle School and his dream was to be a cook.

 “What I’m going to miss the most is to see my family every day,” Richards said. “I mean, to work with your family every day is, was, amazing.”

Hamilton runs her own diner, Chelsea’s, named after her daughter, in Middletown. She continued to work one day a week at the Handy because she loved it.

“It’s absolutely more than a building. It’s my life,” Hamilton said. “It was my life for a long time. So it’s going to be bittersweet once we close those doors. It’s going to be a long time before I can go that far down Thames Street.”

On February 12, customers lined the walls as they waited for a table, a booth or a stool at the counter. There were tears, sniffles, laughter, lots of hugs. Most conversations ended with “thank you,” “thanks,” “bye,” “good-bye.”

Tina DuBreuil wiped away tears as she whispered to another waitress, Melanie Hill, that there were just 15 more minutes until closing.

As it neared 1 p.m., customers continued to flow into the diner until an air horn gave two short blasts, marking the end of service at Gary’s Handy Lunch.

When the last customers left and the door was locked, family members and friends kept coming. They gathered around the counter and in the booths.

Hooks moved from behind the counter to join his friends and family.

Richards started cleaning the grill. Hamilton filled the napkin dispensers. DuBreuil was busy behind the counter. Great granddaughter Avery helped her mom, Chelsea, clean and wipe down the tables. 

Just like every day. Except this was the last day.