Culture

RIP, Burlington NJ’s Cafe Gallery Restaurant

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While the Onion once goofed on the “Insidious Worm [that] Makes Unauthorized Purchases When Computer User Is Drunk,” (a parody that anticipated the 2011 Anthony Weiner sexting scandal by a year), one late night Internet vice for me is to occasionally hit Google maps and check out the photos of my haunts growing up in South Jersey. Unfortunately, from time to time, the warm glow of nostalgia can transform itself into bad news – the other night, I discovered that Burlington’s Café Gallery restaurant closed late last month after a three decade run.

The restaurant took its name, and its concept, from having fine art from local painters (which could be purchased, of course) alongside its tables. And via its huge expanses of plate glass, offered diners an expansive view of the Delaware River. When my parents owned their retail store from 1977 through the late 1980s, they typically put in 13 hour days from Monday through Saturday, and then went out to dinner on Sunday night, alternating between several upscale local restaurants. Some of the fondest memories I have of dining at Café Gallery on Sunday nights was during the period in the late 1980s, I attended NYU; afterwards, my parents would drive me to the Clinton Ave. railroad station in Trenton, and I’d take Amtrak to Penn Station in New York to begin another week at NYU.

After I moved to California, and flew back to New Jersey several times a year starting in the late 1990s to visit my parents, Café Gallery served two purposes: Since it was only a few minutes from my parents’ home, Nina and I would often drive my parents there for dinner, until my father died in 2006, and I would have a certain amount of fun ordering something like escargot, just to get a rise out of my mom. (Snails? Yuck!) And when we needed to play hooky from visiting my parents, Nina and I would go there solo for a more relaxing meal.

In retrospect, the restaurant’s slightly steep entry steps from the sidewalk to its front door served as a marker for my parents’ aging – each time we went, it was always a little tougher for them to climb. In late 2011, when we last went there with my mother, then age 87, she climbed those steps exceedingly slowly and ponderously; not surprisingly, it was a fall down a short flight of steps from her living room to the garage that led to her being placed into hospice care in February of last year. And during that grim period, Nina and I had a few dinners there to collect our thoughts and take a welcome break for the horrors each day brought.

Throughout it all, Barbara Fisher, the co-owner of the restaurant, was a warm and gracious hostess, in later years always welcoming Nina and me back from California. And since it was always one of my parents’ favorite restaurants, at the beginning of March of last year, we had a party at Café Gallery with about 30 of her closest friends to celebrate her life; I’m kicking myself in retrospect for not taking any photographs of the event. If I’m remembering correctly, Nina and I went back one last time during that trip for lunch before driving to the airport to return to California.

I’m not all that surprised that the restaurant ultimately closed, both because of the sluggish economy, and because it seemed like an increasingly sophisticated anachronism in a town that’s always been fairly blue collar, and always seems to be descending incrementally another notch into the cultural abyss each time I return. (Which isn’t to say where I live now is an improvement in that department. I knew I’d be the only person outside of the wait staff wearing a tie (let alone a suit), but last night while dining at the Left Bank in San Jose for Thanksgiving dinner, we were surprised at how slovenly most of the patrons there dressed for a holiday; the death of the grownup, indeed.)

James Lileks often tracks the descent from mid-century swank to the collapse of culture at the end of the 1960s; Café Gallery, which opened in 1979, was a welcome relief from that trend.

Thanks for sharing this personal reminiscence with us. We now return you to the cultural collapse, already in progress.

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Cross-posted from Ed Driscoll’s Blog