At Ray Robinson’s landmark lunch counter, meatloaf and memories are on the menu
Chief Counter Operator: Dave Robinson knows the art of making sandwiches. Photos by Tory Germann.
By Alex Gentile
Lisa glides seamlessly between the counter and tables, snapping up paid tabs and taking orders.
Regulars sip their coffee, read the morning paper. I order a meatloaf sandwich.
“Can I have that on wheat please?”
A sign seems to wink at me from behind the counter: This is not Burger King — You’ll Have it My Way
Sometimes the cook knows best.
“You don’t want it on wheat,” says Dave Robinson, who’s manning the grill. “Try it on oatmeal and if you don’t like it, it’s on me.”
He wasn’t kidding. Then again, I guess the owner of the Ray Robinson Sandwich Shoppe, a downtown landmark since 1969, wouldn’t fool around when it comes to the art of stuffing two slices of bread.
While the food would never be mistaken for chi-chi gourmet fare, it’s no-nonsense and distinctly New England with chowder that’s creamy and intoxicating, homestyle sandwiches three-fingers thick and hearty beef stew that sticks to your ribs.
It’s no surprise that regulars like Edwin Reynolds, the self-proclaimed “King of Rock and Roll” (yeah, he’s a little obsessed with Elvis), have been addicted to the Central Street lunch counter for years.
It all started with a classified ad and a family standing under an orange Rexall Drug sign.
Downtown bustled amid several factories. Laborers from Educator Biscuit, Hathaway Shirt and the rest of Lowell’s manufacturing population flooded the streets at lunch time and in the hoards of hungry workers, Ray Robinson saw opportunity.
The day the diner opened in 1969, Nixon was president, war raged in Vietnam, the Rolling Stones ruled airwaves and the hot sun beat down on a busy Lowell.
Just as Ray predicted, workers flocked in droves along with lawyers, policemen and anyone else in the area looking for an affordable and tasty homecooked meal. The line ran out the door.
“Everybody,” Dave recalls, “they used to come here, and we’d tell them it’s a thirty- minute wait, and you know what they said? ‘We’ll wait.’ ”
Dave bought the sandwich shop from his father Ray in 1986, a time of big change in Lowell. Prince Charles visited the city, which was viewed as a model of urban renewal and the nationally recognized Lowell Folk Festival was gaining momentum.
Over the years, Ricky Gervais ate here. John Kerry and Tricia Nixon passed through. And Lowell District Court Judge Neil Walker sat at the end of the lunch counter, watching Hollywood film a scene for a movie called The Fighter.
“I meet so many people coming through here,” Dave says. “I’ve been here 45 years and I’m still not bored of it.”
Whatever change the times usher in, it doesn’t seem to touch the inside of Ray’s. Brown paneling, a collage of signed photos along the walls, an antique soda fountain tap and wooden pharmacy draws that echo of the old Rexall Drugstore are a nod to days gone by.
The regulars wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dave admits that after such a long ride, he sometimes flirts with the idea of doing something else, but then he wonders what his extended family would do if he was gone. Whether it’s a smile when you walk through the door, some friendly conversation or the perfect sandwich, Dave’s the rock that co-workers and customers know they can depend on. After all, he learned from the best.
Ray built a community around a lunch counter and Dave picked up the torch.
Edwin “Elvis” Reynolds, who tells me he struck out Babe Ruth “three times in one inning,” is a fixture at the lunch counter. Ray’s has become his second home. Dave gives him a sense purpose, letting him help out with the day’s chores.
And Lisa, Dave jokes, won’t let him quit until her daughter gets through college. For the rest of us, he offers a piece of Lowell history served up with each steaming breakfast plate.
In his uniform white apron and thin-rimmed glasses, Dave beams with pride looking out onto Central Street, a vantage point he’s had for more than four decades.
“I was put here for a reason,” he says.
For me, on a sunny afternoon in downtown, the reason was a little taste of heaven on two slices of oatmeal called “David’s Special,” made to order with a piece of Lowell’s past. Dave was right, it’s better on oatmeal.
Alex Gentile is a student at UMass Lowell and a fan of Lowell’s old-time haunts serving up some character. Editor Rita Savard contributed to this report.