Tag Archives: Lighthouse Restaurant Wellfleet MA

Lights Out at the Lighthouse

By Ed Staskus

   “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, ‘till it’s gone.” Joni Mitchell

   Starting early in April, lights start blinking back on in stores inns restaurants and businesses of all kinds on Cape Cod. Hiring ramps up for cooks, waiters, waitresses, cashiers, retail associates, merchandisers, front desk agents, landscaping, cleaning services, and even at local airports who park and fuel aircraft. The Sagamore Bridge puts on its best welcome back smile.

   Even though snowfall is slight on Cape Cod, whatever there is of it melts as the weather gets warmer. Purple-blue hyacinths and bright yellow daffodils start to open. In Wellfleet, which is between Orleans and Provincetown, where almost everything shuts down for the winter, almost everything opens up again in the spring. Except when it doesn’t.

   It was early in April when Joe Wanco and his family, wife Laura and daughters Michelle and Jodie, made it known that their Lighthouse Restaurant would not be opening for the upcoming season. The iconic mid-19th century building in the middle of town on Main St. groaned.

   “After many years, many employees, many building renovations, many blueberry muffins, pints of beer, and Boston sports championships, it has been decided it is in the best interest of the family that we no longer operate as a business. This is not a decision made overnight or without extensive consideration. Forty years is a long time and even longer in restaurant years.”

   “Oh, man, this is sad,” said Molly MacGregor. It being springtime on the Outer Cape, dark gray clouds rolled in and filled the sky. “This is worse than closing down Town Hall,” said Steve Curley. “I want to scream, NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!” screamed Heidi Gertsen-Scheck.

   Forty years in the dining room trade is like four hundred in dog years. It’s a challenge as well as a slog. If you like falling jumping being pushed off the deep end, operating a watering hole is for you.

   Even if your menu is coherent and priced appropriately, and the tables are set nice and neat, and the ambience is what your customers like, but the customer service is sour, customers will remember and go elsewhere. Even if management is ahead of food and drink costs and keeps labor costs manageable, if they don’t notice nobody is asking for slimehead, and don’t take it off the menu, they’re stuck with a freezer full of slimehead. On top of that, even if the grub is outstanding, the staff trained and civil and ready to go, if the front man is slow-mo marketing his restaurant, he ends up with a half-empty restaurant.

   “You have had a great run,” said Jim Clarke, who owned the Lighthouse from 1968 to 1978. “I still have memories and nightmares from those years. I wish I had a nickel for all the muffins I baked.”

   The Lighthouse was a local seafood eatery, with arguably the best oyster stew between Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, a local sports bar and grill where the Patriots Red Sox Celtics ruled the roost on the flat screens. It was a local dive bar with two-dollar cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Cape Cod bands livening up the joint year after year.

   “You guys have been a bedrock of this community,” said Sam Greene. “Main Street won’t be the same,” said Donna McCaffery. “We started almost every vacation in Wellfleet at the Lighthouse, starting in 1989 when my now husband met my family there for our vacation-starting breakfast,” said Laura Wardwell.

   Six White House men came and went, while another one got stuck in traffic with a flat tire and only Twitter to keep him company, from the time the Wanco’s landed on Main St. Townspeople and tourists grew up with the Lighthouse. Others were born and had to find out for themselves, peeking in through a window. “I grew up with stories about the Lighthouse before I even knew what it was,” said Amy St. John Ramsdell.

   “Our five children grew up having breakfast at the Lighthouse every Sunday after mass,” said Jodi Lyn Deitsch-Malcynsky. “Your family was always inviting and gracious and fun! Our summers in Wellfleet will be forever changed.”

   “I remember parking my bicycle out front and coming in for a Cherry Coke,” said Matt Frazier, years before he became their trash hauler and recycler. “An extra special thank-you for always treating our crew with snacks and beverages during and after Oyster Festival.”

   The menu wasn’t encyclopedic, the prices weren’t an arm and a leg, even though the plates were chock-full, and the always hot food was more than good, often very good. “The best scallops in the world, as good as Digby, Nova Scotia,” said a man from Boston. “What’s more to say?”

   “I can’t say enough about the Cod Ruben,” said a man from Westfield. “They had a great selection of beer. The service was awesome.” He was crestfallen when he heard the news.    “Where am I going to get a good Cod Reuben now?”

   “They happened to have lobster dinners on a special, super fresh and tender,” said a woman from Worthington. “They were the best lobster dinners we had all summer.”

   The Lighthouse was the only restaurant on the Outer Cape without a front door. There were two side doors, and plenty of windows to sit at and watch the world go by. “Here’s to missing the big picture,” one man said to another, sitting at the bar one September morning, over hearty breakfasts and Bloody Mary’s, their backs to the front window. The bar sat about a dozen and the front room and side room tables sat forty or fifty. The floors were hardwood. There is a big skylight in the beamed tilted ceiling of the side dining room. It isn’t a small place, but it isn’t a big place, either. It was always lively and got even more lively at night.

   “When I was younger it was our breakfast place,” said John Denninger. “As I grew older it was my place to get a drink. When I decided to move here the Wanco’s made it feel like home. I could not have found a better place to hang out.”

   A red and white replica of the red and white Nauset lighthouse is on the flat roof of the front room. “The lighthouse does great service, yet it is the slave of those who trim the lamps,” observed the writer Alice Rollins. It doesn’t go looking for passing ships in the night. It just stands there with its big bright light on. Lighthouses are always lighthouses in somebody’s storm, especially if the fish is pan-fried just right and the beer is cold.

   The Wanco’s came from New Jersey in the late 1970s. They partnered with a friend of theirs in the restaurant so they could “try our hand at a small business in a seaside town in an expression of our own American dream.” Their partner retired after ten years, but the Wanco’s kept the fireplace stoked, carrying on. “It was our family providing a watering hole, meeting place, warm meal, cold beer, loud music, local gossip, friendly banter, and a smiling face.”

   Besides everything else, who wants to lose a smiling face? There aren’t a great abundance of them to begin with. “Ah, Jaysus,” said Jenifer Good. “It’s too much!”

   Owning and operating a restaurant isn’t the same as going to work. It’s more like hard work. Many people start work by checking their e-mails. So do many restaurateurs. Many people check their e-mails all day. Most restaurateurs don’t. They don’t have time. There are too many other things to do.

   After they’ve turned on the lights and checked their mail in the morning they do a walk-through of the restaurant, note what needs to be cleaned repaired replaced, start receiving orders, start food production, say hello to arriving cooks and staff, last minute scrambles because someone is sick hungover missing, breakfast service, take a break, lunch pre-shift, lunch service, move on to more food production, staff meal, dinner pre-shift, dinner service, clean up, wipe down, go over the day’s receipts, stay on top of staffing for tomorrow, and fit in balancing the checkbook, making payroll, checking inventory against reality, making a list of purveyors to talk to, and finally, locking up for the night

   All of this without swearing too much at staff customers passersby and loved ones. Not that working at the Lighthouse wasn’t a happening, spiced by curses out of left field. “Working there was always an adventure,” said John Dwyer.

   “My first waitressing job was 40 years ago here,” said Gina Menza. “I was terrible, but they kept me on. Some crazy memories of living upstairs, sitting on the roof to watch the parade, and sneaking into the drive-in rolled up in a carpet in the back of the company van.”

   The Wellfleet Drive-In has been around since 1957. It’s one of only a few hundred drive-ins left in the USA. Vans and pick-ups back in so the crowd packed inside them can see the screen.

   “What I remember is living in the upstairs apartment while working at the Lighthouse at my first job, smashing my head into the tables while running from the kitchen to the dining room, creamy dill salad and the best pickles on the planet, working down in the bakery, and years later to many post-shift beers,” said Jacqueline Stagg.

   “My most fun job ever,” said Kelly Moore. “Endless pre-games and endgames, situations, life lessons with Pill Bill, meltdowns, bike stealings and returnings, hurricane parties, skinny dipping team meetings, Wall of Shame, family breakfasts, jam sessions, chats with Thomas, high society, beer pong tournaments, roof top nights, off-season regulars, and Mexican meltdowns with Slammo. I will never forget mista sista kissa.”

   Communities are built around their city halls, schools, and businesses. Even though the Outer Cape is known for its guidebook attractions, sun and sand whale watching art galleries seafood summer theater, Provincetown, the Cape Cod Rail Trail, and the National Seashore, its essence is in its smaller neighborhoods and places.

   “They were the center beacon of our town,” said Chris Eize of the Sacred Mounds. “When we became the house band, we became part of the place.”

   Most bands that played at the Lighthouse played where the music sounded consistently better than it should have sounded, resonating better than the written notes and the acoustics, and from Funktapuss to the Sacred Mounds they always lit up the venue. “The Super Scenics always had a blast playing there with our gracious hosts the Mounds and the Lighthouse” said Jeff Jahnke, “Thanks and cheers!”

   “We got to know Michelle and Jodie on an intimate level of trust, honest communication, and friendship,” said Chris, the front man of the Mounds. “I loved how Jodie didn’t really have a filter, and you knew exactly what she was thinking, because she would tell you, whether you liked it or not. We enjoyed the after-show drinks and reflections with Michelle, and that openness will live on with appreciation and fondness.”

   There is always a lot of camaraderie in restaurants, everybody working closely together, all in around the chuck wagon. “The restaurant business, even in the most stable of markets is, frankly, exhausting,” said Joe Wanco. “It’s an ever-consuming extra member of the family. There are no restful nights, even with the help of your favorite tequila.”

   It is a consuming undertaking because of the long days, most of it on your feet, and the competition inherent in the undertaking. The restaurant business is massive, with more than one million restaurants coast to coast. The chances of making it even two years are slim. Most eateries close in their first year. Three out of four close in the next three to five years. Making it four decades is Bunyanesque.

   The Wanco family put their heart and soul into their work. Staying the course means staying steadfast. “Wow, 40 years, that’s awesome,” said Katie Edmond.

   “You and your oyster stew are going to be greatly missed,” said Rob Cushing. “Joe and Laura, enjoy your well-deserved retirement,” said Virginia Davis. “You have served the town well.”

   It works both ways, coming and going, since Main St. is not a one-way street. “We are eternally grateful for the many years of support from our loyal clientele, especially our year-round community,” said the Wanco family, signing off. “Good luck, cuz,” said Joyce Fabiano to the leave-taking. “We sure are going to miss you all,” said Mike Deltano.

   “What I want to know is how will I ever now find my children when I get to Wellfleet since the Lighthouse is closed?” asked Judy Sherlock. “Look for them at the town library?” She thought better of spitting out “Hah!”

   The Wanco’s were the food and drink keepers for a long time. The lights of our favorite places go on and off over time. Every now and then they need a new minder. What Main St. in Wellfleet needs now is a new barkeep to fire up the lanterns at the local public house again, like the New Jersey transplants did forty-some enterprising years ago.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


Beating the Bushes


By Ed Staskus

   “Nobody would talk to me at the Lighthouse the first winter I lived in Wellfleet,” said Susan Rarick. “All the other tables were yukking it up, laughing away, having a good time. I sat there alone slouched over a beer, night after night, and nobody would talk to me.”

   The Lighthouse was a bar and restaurant in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. It had been there forty-some years at the far end of the peninsula called the Outer Cape. A scale replica of the Nauset Beach lighthouse jutted up from the roof and the menu didn’t lack for crab cakes, littlenecks, and PBR’s. The only towns farther out on the Cape are Truro and Provincetown, on the far fist end of the Cape, which is 14 miles north of Wellfleet.

   The Pilgrims, when they landed in North America in 1620, landed in Provincetown. It is where they first shook hands with the locals and signed the Mayflower Compact. When Thanksgiving was over and done, they shook a holy fist at the locals and went south for better living quarters.

   “It wasn’t until Barbara Jordan, who was then the social director of the town, started talking to me that everybody else did, too,” said Suzie.  “I had only moved to Wellfleet from Provincetown, but it’s very local here, big time. Any small town is like that. But, once you’re in, you’re in for life.”

   Fewer than three thousand people live in Wellfleet, once known as Oyster Port, although in summer the population swells to nearly twenty thousand. Almost half of the town is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The rest of the place is a one-horse middle of town, winding residential neighborhoods, and a large harbor.

   The town clock on the top of the Congregational Church is the only bell clock in the world that still rings on ship’s time. The Wellfleet Drive-In is one of the few still standing in the USA. It’s the only outdoor screen on the same coastline where the movie was shot that shows the movie “Jaws” under the stars. The Beachcomber at Cahoon’s Hollow is the only beach bar high on top a Cape Cod dune overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

   The Incredible Casuals, featuring a transvestite drummer, were the Sunday afternoon house band for many years. But, like the band, not all of Cape Cod where the Beachcomber stands is still there. “When I was a kid, we had to walk forever from the car, lugging all our stuff, to the beach,” said Suzie. “Not anymore. It’s being washed away. The winter before last we had a storm that caused twenty years’ worth of erosion.” The Beachcomber lost its last row of parking. It collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean.

   “It’s extremely fragile here. That’s one reason it’s so special, besides the people. Where else can you live where many people don’t necessarily lock their doors? It’s like going back in time,” she said. Recent FBI crime statistics show that Cape Cod is below the national average in everything, while the murder risk, at a third, and the robbery risk, at a fourth, are both far below the national average.

   “I feel safe wherever I go, even in the woods, at least right up to hunting season, when you have to start being a little careful,” Suzie said.

   You can go everywhere in a small town like Wellfleet, although small towns aren’t for everybody. Since many of them don’t have places to go that you shouldn’t necessarily go to, they are sometimes thought of as small-minded. But no matter where you go, even the world’s big cities, it is only small minds that cling to small things.

   Small town life is like working at home, where everybody knows you and you know everybody. “I know everybody here in the winter,” Suzie said. “New Englanders are private, not show-offy, which sometimes comes off as cold, but I know all the local stories now.”

   Zsuzsanna Rarick vacationed on Cape Cod in the 1950s as a child, after her parents immigrated to the United States in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. “My parents didn’t even speak English. They said the Massachusetts climate was similar to Hungary’s, so that was where they settled. They went to Framingham with nothing but the clothes on their back. It was a different time to come to the United States. People were welcoming, very welcoming.”

   She has spent every summer or lived year-round on Cape Cod since she was four years old. “My friends had families with summer homes, but our family camped. I always loved it. There’s a picture of me at the top of the Provincetown Monument, my front teeth missing. I used to cry going home over the bridge, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go, I cried. I would lick the sea salt off my skin to get the last little taste of the Cape.”

   It is in places like Cape Cod that something is everything to somebody.

   After whaling slowly died off in the 18th century tourism began to be promoted in the 19th century. The Cape became a summer place for well-off city folk coming from Boston by packet boat and stagecoach.  When Route 6 was finished as far as Provincetown in the 1950s, and President Kennedy signed legislation creating the Cape Cod National Seashore, the sandy peninsula became a go-to vacation spot for many families up and down the Northeast.

   “I always tell people when they say how much they like Wellfleet, only tell your very best friends about us. It still has character and it’s still a real community.” Some of the townsfolk wear t-shirts saying, “So Many Tourists, So Few Sharks.”  Nevertheless, the driving force behind much of Wellfleet’s economy is off-Cape dollars. Seasonal residents, second-home owners, and tourism account for the better part of the town’s annual income.

   “There’s not a lot of year-round work here, so in the summer everybody is working crazy hours. We’re all complaining about it, too. The roads are a parking lot. All your errands you do on your off hours, somehow or other, or not at all. You go for groceries at the Stop-n-Shop in Provincetown at midnight.”

   It’s where to gossip with your neighbors who you never see in season.

   “But we have to make money, although after September it’s our reward time. We get to be with each other. Cape Cod is your private playground then. You can throw a snowball down the street in January, and you won’t hit a thing.”

   Everybody has to come in from the playground sometime, though, and that’s one of the problems of living in Wellfleet, as well as Truro and Provincetown.

   “There are people who live here who can’t find a place to live,” Suzie said. “If you have a house already, you’re OK.  But, if you’re trying to find a house here, like me, you’re bitter, like me.” Spring, summer, and fall Susan Rarick lives in a three-season cottage, a dwelling without sufficient land around it to qualify as an all-season’s condo. In the winter she is compelled to move to a rental in Eastham, farther south on the Outer Cape. There is a dearth of housing because housing prices have soared, while wages have stagnated.

   “Over the past ten years the median cost of a house rose $200,000 while income rose only $10,000,” said Paul Cullity, the pastor of Wellfleet’s Congregational Church and member of the local housing partnership trust. “Not only are people barely earning more than they did ten years ago, but they can actually buy less and less housing each year.”

   By standards common to the state of Massachusetts the town of Wellfleet should have 140 affordable homes. “But, we have less than 20,” said Pastor Cullity. The problem is so acute that there is an annual “Housing with Love Walk” to raise money and awareness for Cape Cod housing agencies.

   “It’s so friggin’ expensive here, and then, 80%, maybe 90% of the houses are empty,” said Suzie. “The baby boomers are buying everything up. It’s just summer homes for them, someplace where they’ll have a good spot for the 4th of July parade. They don’t live here all year. They live someplace else.” In the race between living and living it up, living it up is winning. “You have to be a certain type of person to live here year-round. We’re not the fast track and our track is disappearing because of real estate. In the 80s a half-acre might have cost $40,000. Today it’s closer to $240,000, or more, if you can find one.”

   Real estate land listings in the spring of 2016 in Wellfleet included 1.4 acres on Route 6, Cape Cod’s spinal highway, for $399,000 and 1.2 waterfront acres on Pine Pond Road for $895,000, while 2.3 acres on Perch Pond Way was a steal at $389,000. Almost half of the homes listed for sale in 2015 in Wellfleet were asking over a million dollars. One of the least expensive was a Sears kit house, the kind folks used to buy from the catalog, priced at $329,000.

   “Wellfleet was a cottage community, but then people started buying the cottages and making them over into million-dollar structures that they use three weeks out of the year,” Suzie said. “It’s good for our taxes and it’s actually not bad either that they’re not here most of the time.”

Far away makes the heart grow fonder.

   “The only saving grace we have is the National Seashore, thank God. Otherwise, there would be condos up and down that shoreline. At least we’re not Provincetown. It’s so sad. There’s nothing there anymore. Twenty years ago, it was a year-round community. It was so much fun. Everybody got along and you could get cheap rentals for the summer. Now, forget it. All the Portuguese sold their family homes for big bucks, walked away, and went somewhere else. You can’t find anything to rent. Everything’s been bought up.”

   Always a popular summer resort town, Provincetown has become increasingly popular since the 90s, so much so that no one lives there anymore. “Locals have been relocating,” said Bob O’Malley of Beachfront Realty. “The prices are driving them out of the market.”

   Although most of the new homeowners don’t live in town in the off-season, they are the newcomers who have more money, much more money, than the locals. “A lot of people had to leave town because they couldn’t find housing, any housing,” said Michelle Jarusiewicz, the Community Housing Specialist for Provincetown.

   “There’s no old-timers, there’s hardly any locals left, at all. There are practically no births anymore and the high school closed,” Suzie said. The last senior class at the Provincetown High School, after more than 150 years of senior classes, graduated in 2013. That was the end of that future.

   In the spring of 2015 Kristin Hatch, a volunteer member of the Provincetown Housing Authority, found the shoe on the other foot when she found out she was going to have to vacate her two-bedroom condo. “The landlord sent me an e-mail that he’s going to sell,” she said. “Hopefully something comes up.” In the meantime, she was moving her possessions into storage and staying with a friend.

   “Living here is not for everybody,” Suzie said. “What is kind of funny is that in the summertime the tourists are all sitting up here and thinking it’s like this all the time, but it’s not. I was doing a catering event in Truro, at a big, modern house that they got out of a magazine, and one of the guys I was working with said, ‘Come winter I’ll be sitting right here on this deck looking out at the sunset because there ain’t gonna be anybody else here.’”

   In winter the shore towns of the Outer Cape go from bustling to evacuated. In summer you can’t park anywhere. In winter you can park anywhere you want. The suddenly empty beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore are anyone’s for the taking, so long as you take along a heavy coat, boots, and a friendly dog to keep you company.

   In winter in Wellfleet there might not be anything better than spending an hour or two in a neighborhood bar. “It’s a small community,” Suzie said. “One winter when it was bad there were three guys who always sat at a big table at the Lighthouse telling jokes. We would sit around, and they would start telling jokes. They each had a repertoire of fifty of them, maybe more, and they told them for hours. We thought it was great. It’s pretty isolated here in the winter.”

   “Did I ever tell you how Harvey and I tried to set up an anarchist community here in the 1960s, but we couldn’t make it work because nobody would obey the rules,” one of the good old boys drawled between pulls on a Pabst Blue Ribbon.

   “But, if you’re in trouble, somebody’s boat sinks in the harbor, the community is there,” Suzie said. “I was going to drive to Florida one time and there was something wrong with my car. The dealer said it was going to be five, maybe six hundred dollars. I took it to my friend, one of the men who used to tell jokes at the Lighthouse, and he looked at it, said it was no big deal, fixed it, and didn’t charge me. That’s what they are, salt of the earth people.”

   But, before joining the salt of the earth, one needs a little bit of the earth for oneself.

   “I love it here, although you give up a lot to live here. You have got to like yourself because there aren’t many distractions. But I need a house, that’s the biggest thing. I have just got to get a house. I’m crazy about it. I’m obsessed with it. I’ve been looking for years.”

   Of all home remedies, a good home is the best. While it may be true that everybody is stuck with themselves at home, it is where everybody usually feels better than anywhere else. Home is where one starts from early in the morning and ends up at the tail end of the day, where there’s always a candle burning in the window.

   “I’ll get it,” Susan Rarick said. “I’m getting closer, getting closer, and I’ll get there soon.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”