Last day at DJ’s
After decades of friends, family and food, local diner closes shop
SARANAC LAKE — Lauralee Kunath served up breakfast for her family and friends in DJ’s Rustic Restaurant for the last time on Tuesday.
Kunath is closing the diner to spend more time with her mother — a former waitress, cook and co-owner of DJ’s. It has been an emotional week. After 35 years at the diner, Kunath said her customers have become family and friends.
“They’ve watched me become a mom and a grandmother,” she said.
She’s spent more than half her life there, presiding over the hungry diners and feeding the chit-chat with coffee and eggs.
“Pretty much my entire adult life has been with you all,” Kunath wrote in a Facebook post she typed with “a very heavy heart and tears in my eyes.” “We know each other’s children, grand children, siblings, spouse’s, story’s, sadnesses, wins and losses, laughter and tears.”
She hadn’t set out to own a restaurant, but she fell in love with it. It’s a good trade-off with the diners; she fills their plates and they fill her heart. Oftentimes, they fill her ear. There’s no WiFi in the building. No one was on their phones and the small room was abuzz with conversation on Tuesday.
Kunath loves seeing diners greedily rubbing their hands together when she puts a plate in front of them, perking up in their seats as their second cup of caffeine works its magic. Their faces light up when the door opens and a friend walks in.
She’s essentially been managing a social gathering space. She’s got an inside joke or snappy phrase for everyone.
There’s only about 25 seats in the place — a cozy set-up. The food isn’t garnished with rosemary sprigs or capers. It’s eggs and bacon “like mom used to make.”
“It’s old-school,” Kunath said.
For the people who eat there every day, the regulars, it’s the only place they’ve ever considered eating breakfast in town.
“I’m gonna miss my guys,” Kunath said of her regulars. “I worry about them very much. A lot of the older ones, I’m not sure what they’re going to do.”
Some of them have been coming to DJ’s since the 1950s. She said she’s trying to organize a coffee group they can rely on to keep connected.
Kunath said she loves the tourists. Some of them return year after year to get breakfast at DJ’s. But its the people who live in town who have kept her diner open. She said DJ’s has been a place for blue-collar locals.
They helped her through the pandemic when restaurants were limited to take-out orders only. People came out in “droves” to order meals to go.
An interview was cut short when Tammie Boyer and Carol Lawrence came in with a bouquet of flowers for Kunath.
“You guys are going to make me cry,” Kunath said, reaching out for hugs from her friends.
Boyer’s mother and Lawrence’s aunt both worked at DJ’s. Lawrence said her aunt Beverly had six boys. With her aunt’s eight siblings, Lawrence said there were too many to be in the hospital at Adirondack Medical Center down the road, so DJ’s was their waiting room every time she met a new cousin.
A mother’s gift
Kunath points to a note she wrote hanging on the back wall behind a table with a family drinking coffee. It reads: “I do this for my Mama and I am proud.”
Her mom, “Mama Sharon Barry,” worked as a waitress all her life, including at DJ’s when it was owned by Shirley Durfee. The diner is named after Durfee’s late husband, Dick Jewtraw.
Kunath remembers sitting in the kitchen and hearing the dishes clank when she was a child. Then, Barry bought DJ’s from Durfee and Kunath came on as a waitress. She was 19.
“I was scared to death,” she said. “Now they’re afraid of me.”
Back in the 1980s, it was a “man’s place.” She said they’d all sit in there, smoke cigarettes and drink coffee on their lunch breaks. The diner used to be open 24/7, and was a popular place to go for grub after the bars closed.
Over the years she’s made it a place for families.
“The same guys are still here,” she said. “They just learned to adjust.”
Her mother was the one who taught her to cook, or rather, threw her into the culinary world.
“One day we were packed and she called me into the kitchen. She said, ‘Hold this.’ It was a spatula. I turned around and she said ‘Good luck!'”
Years later, Barry made the same hand-off to her daughter with the entire restaurant.
“I’m the business, she’s the books,” Kunath said.
Sad and proud
Kunath was reluctant to close DJ’s, but said it’s what she needed to do at this time in her life.
“Times and things have changed and at this time in our lives, we have come to this heart breaking, bitter sweet decision,” Kunath wrote. “It is time for us to live slower and easier and I am excited to go with what comes next.”
It’s physical labor and it keeps her away from her mom. But the decision was “terribly hard.” She said her final customers probably saw her wiping away tears.
“Bitter sweet is a true emotion,” Kunath wrote in a Facebook post. “My heart is broken, at the same time, joy. More time with my Mama.”
Kunath said she got the flu a few months ago, and the diner was closed for two weeks. She realized that if she’s not there to run the diner, no one will. So she wanted to leave on a high note, to be proud of the business and sad it had to end.
“We’d rather go out with a great name and a great business,” Kunath said.
She’s not selling or leasing the building. Kunath said she wants to get a grant for the building to turn it into something new.
“I’ll be back,” she said. “But it won’t be food.”
“You don’t always have to cook to make people happy,” she wrote on Facebook.
She said she wants a place for working-class people to buy daily essentials, gifts and clothes, and a shop where her mom can sit and talk with friends.
Kunath said her best memories of the diner come from days like Tuesday. Everyone was talking, laughing, full and happy. It was just how she loved it — busy and loud.