They came by the hundreds Thursday night to say goodbye to an old friend, to remember the good moments, to soak up the happy vibes one last time. They hugged and laughed, smiled and shook hands. Some fought back tears as they remembered special moments with loved ones and contemplated a future without their comfortable home away from home.
It was part somber funeral, part upbeat celebration of life. After 75 years, the R&S Keystone Diner in Hilltown, which meant so much to so many, served its last meal. In a couple of months, it will become a dentist’s office.
The news of the diner’s demise shook longtime customers. Although she had heard rumors for a couple of weeks, the reality didn’t set in for Margaret Klos until Saturday when she saw the sign outside.
“I broke down and cried,” says the Upper Gwynedd resident. She planned to order the veal cutlet Parmesan, her late dad’s favorite dish.
For Dan Yocum, the 31-year-old Souderton Borough mayor who grew up eating chicken croquettes with his grandparents at the R&S, seeing the diner close “feels like the end of an era.”
It was a sentiment shared by just about everyone who passed through the diner doors that night, waiting patiently in a long line that, at times, stretched down the steps and into the parking lot, anxious for a final chance to sit at the counter, in a booth, or at a table in the dining room and order “some home-cooked Dutchie food,” as one longtime customer said.
Whether you ordered the broiled grouper or fried shrimp, or had bacon and eggs with toast, each meal was special because of the food as well as the people who served it, customers said. Some say the R&S dressing, a Russian dressing lookalike, was so good they could make a meal of it with just some lettuce.
Heather Pail, a Harleysville native who now lives in Boyertown, made a special trip last week just to pick up a quart of the creamy dressing.
“Who thought that a single food item could represent so many memories?” asked Pail. “That dressing reminds me of my mom who craved it while she carried me and my two sisters. It reminds me of dinners with my dad. My parents would even drive to Kutztown with a chef salad for a lonely college student so I’d have a taste of home.”
Some people, like Mike and Linda Holnick, of Quakertown, made the R&S a Friday night routine for decades. “We knew if we didn’t get here by 5 o’clock we knew we’d be standing in line for a while,” laughed Mike Holnick.
That’s the legacy of the iconic diner, which opened in 1948 at Line Lexington Road and Route 309 in Hatfield Township, near where an auto dealership now stands. Owners Butch and Thelma Ruth called it the R&S Grill, then moved and changed the name when they bought The Keystone Diner on Old Bethlehem Pike in 1960.
Through harsh winters and broiling summers, through tough economic times, the growing popularity of chain restaurants, and a pandemic, the R&S was a place where customers knew they could count on a good meal served by friendly waitresses in a wholesome atmosphere.
"It's a family here," said owner Jo Ann Kerr, who has managed the diner since her parents passed away in 1981.
In many ways, Kerr was the heart and soul of the diner for the last three decades. She often greeted customers by name, watched her employees grow from teenager to adult, and did whatever she had to do to keep the atmosphere friendly and welcoming, even if it meant washing dishes or cleaning a bathroom.
About 150 current and former employees showed up Monday night for a surprise retirement party in Kerr’s honor. On Tuesday, Kerr and her staff held a Customer Appreciation Day, serving cake and coffee for anyone who stopped by. All Kerr asked in return was for everyone to write their name and year they first came to the diner on a piece of stained glass. At least a few indicated they had been customers for more than 50 years.
“It’s bittersweet,” she says. “All my customers are saying ‘I'm sad for me but happy for you.’”
Kerr’s not sure what the future holds. She plans to take a week off “and do nothing.” There’s an auction of restaurant equipment scheduled for June 17 that will put an exclamation point on the diner’s amazing ride.
“It’s been 75 years. You can’t go out on a higher note than that,” says Kerr. "I just hope my mom and dad are proud of me."