There is a pleasant scent distinctive to diners. It’s an amalgamation of coffee and toast and syrup and bacon grease that forms this other aroma that is its own; yet the nose can still differentiate and savor each individual, delicious element. Open the door at the Tower Grill in Waterbury, and the brief zephyr it causes will bathe you in it.
It won’t much longer. The landmark diner’s owner says expensive building woes and a decline in business brought on by construction on Freight Street are to blame for the upcoming closure of the venerable eatery.
When the diner closes its doors for the last time Christmas Eve, patrons who have made it their second home for decades said it won’t be just a workday breakfast or after-church brunch that will be lost.
As people in an increasingly on-demand society buy bagels from drive-thru windows and eat burgers on the train, there are concerns that diners — and the conversation and congeniality encouraged by their atmosphere — are headed for the same graveyard where most of the nation’s drive-in movie theaters are buried.
“They’re going to lose that sense of community; you know, that gathering hole, the watering hole kind of feel,” said Tower Grill owner Peter Cotsoradis.
When original Tower Grill owner and founder Joseph “Pepe” Janatiss opened the restaurant with partner Pat Sebastian on Meadow Street in 1941, it was right in the hub of the city’s booming brass industry.
Back then, similar diners sold an entire breakfast — bacon, eggs, toast, coffee and more — for 25 cents. A cup of coffee was a nickel.
The business thrived for decades, even after the Flood of 1955 destroyed the original building, forcing Janatiss and Sebastian to move the restaurant to its current Freight Street location.
Janatiss’s son, Robert A. Janatiss, later took over the Tower Grill. In the 1960s, Cotsoradis said, the building was expanded to about three times its original size.
The younger Janatiss, who died in 2015, operated the Tower Grill until Cotsoradis’s parents, the late Steve and Polly Cotsoradis, took over the business in 1989.
Cotsoradis excused himself several times during an interview, as patrons approached him to pay their checks, express their condolences over closing the business his family has run for 30 years, and to wish him well.
“This is a crossroads type of restaurant. It’s been here for so long. Every strata of society comes in this place, so it is like a watering hole,” he said. “You got a lion drinking next to a zebra, drinking next to an elephant; prey and predator all just drinking together.”
THREE RETIREES WHO for decades have met nearly every morning at the Tower Grill said they fear their friendship won’t survive its closing.
“We love it; we’re going to miss it terribly,” Stella Gugliotti said. “The bottom line is we’re all sad. We’re very, very sad.”
Gugliotti said she’s been eating at the Tower Grill for 40 years. Some years back, retired teachers Patricia Walker and Vivian Walsh saw her eating alone and invited her to join their booth. They’ve been inseparable since.
When the Tower closes, they said, they’ll have nowhere to meet anymore.
“We’ll never find another place,” Walker said.
Walker praised the Tower for the kindness of its staff. She said Cotsoradis’s mother, Polly, “was wonderful to me,” and the waitresses are patient with her rambunctious grandchildren when her family gathers there every Sunday.
“It’s like a second home — my second home,” she said. “I see friendly faces and smiling people, and the waitresses are so kind. Everybody’s been sweet to me here.”
THERE’S A SCIENCE behind the coffee.
In his 2013 book “Classic Diners of Connecticut,” author Garrison Leykam described the Tower Grill’s coffee as “superb” and brewed in antique urns using a “full extraction” process that balances grounds-to-water ratios and exact temperatures.
“But the science behind coffee extraction is secondary to having that first morning cup of joe at the Tower Grill, when suddenly all’s right in the world,” he wrote.
Leykam, reached at his Farmington home, lamented the impending loss of the Tower Grill.
“One of the things the Tower Grill’s departure symbolizes is the loss of communal memories,” he said. “The Tower Grill is more than eggs over easy, a side of toast and a cup of coffee. It’s such a part of Waterbury’s history and, significantly, in brass manufacturing.”
“Diners overall are departing; in their place we have fast food, chain restaurants,” he said. “You drive up to a drive-up window, order your hamburger and fries, pay the lady in the window and off you go. No one stops to converse anymore. People eat in their cars.”
The greatest loss, Leykam said, might be felt by folks like those three retired women from Waterbury who met there every day, chatting and enjoying each other’s company, for years and years.
“That’s one thing that was central, not just to the Tower Grill, but diners overall. You talked to the person left of you. You talked to the person right of you. And strangers became friends. And friends became regulars,” he said.
“We don’t savor life. We don’t savor interpersonal relationships the way we used to,” he said. “So every time a diner closes, it’s more than the door that shuts. It’s the keys to a very special past that are now gone.”
Garrison Leykam is Host & Producer of DINERS for Connecticut Public Television (CPTV) with a TV audience of 21M+ viewers and 1.8M+ accompanying global podcast listens of Those Diner and Motorcycle Guys. He is author of Classic Diners of Connecticut (History Press) and is featured in the AMA’s MotoStars: Celebrities + Motorcycles book and exhibit with Brad Pitt, Steve McQueen, Keith Urban, Peter Fonda, Tom Arnold, and bands Journey, Rush, and Foreigner. Leykam’s motorcycle trip across Egypt is featured in New York Rider magazine.