I picture the Yankee Doodle Coffee and Sandwich Shop as a predictably adorable American diner—it is warm inside, the coffee is oily, and a man in a paper sailor hat keeps refilling my cup. There are sticky leather seats and a chrome-lined counter and stains on the cook’s white apron. I eat French toast and drink chocolate milkshakes. There is music playing, and the background noises of a baseball game on the television. When I come in after class, the cook says, “Hey there, Rachel! How’re your studies?” In my imagination, I am a regular.
I have never been to the Yankee Doodle Diner and I guess I never will. I have passed it hundreds of times. The last time I walked by, the restaurant’s windows were covered from the inside with light blue paper. No one could claim its greasy food was good for the heart, but many believed it to be good for the soul. The Doodle was the sort of place that people loved to love, and it has become the sort of place that people love to save. Some Yale students treated a visit to its counters like a trip to a shrine or a temple. “Though I didn’t go a lot, when I did I always was glad of it and told myself I ought to go more,” says sophomore Joshua Silverstein, expressing the sort of guilt often felt by the sporadically religious. Like a sacred ritual, the Doodle represented a tie to the past. “It was so old school,” says Silverstein. “Pretty much the definition of old school.”
It seems that everyone has a Doodle story. “The first time was the best,” recalls Senior Ted Gordon. “My friends and I, freshman year, after pulling an all-nighter, vowed to eat breakfast at the Doodle as it opened at five or six in the morning. We walked over in the cold and ordered.” Others spin tales of gluttonous pride. On February 15, 1999, William Storbierski, who lives in the New Haven area, ate 25 hamburgers at the Doodle counter, earning a plaque on the restaurant’s walls. When another man beat his record several months later, Storbierski went back to the Doodle to reclaim his title.
But memorable and even periodic visits to the Doodle do not a regular make. Joe Gerhard, a New Haven resident since 1984 and a frequent fiddler at Anna Liffey’s, estimates that he’s eaten at the Doodle between one and two hundred times but claims that “if you do the math, you’ll see that number still wouldn’t be often enough to qualify me as one of the regulars.” Dan Jeanette, a New Haven native, ate at the Doodle at least once a week during his four years of high school. He sees the coffee shop’s closing as part of the ongoing transformation of York Square. “Yale seems to be striving to create more of a ‘college town’ feel where shops stay open later and the general vibe is geared towards the college clientele,” he notes. Although Jeanette recognizes the benefits of Yale-sponsored urban development, he also points out that “some of this change has been to the detriment of long-standing businesses. Barrie Ltd. Shoes, York Square Cinemas, and now the Doodle have all closed down.” While new businesses like J. Crew and Au Bon Pain may have revitalized the area, they “don’t have any history behind them.”
Not all locals are sentimental aboutthe Doodle’s closing. Storbierski has only casually followed the story in the New Haven Register and he doesn’t intend to become involved in the cause to “Save the Doodle!” “I’m working two jobs and really don’t have the spare time to try and help out,” he says.
According to Paul Cuticello, the owner of Paul Richards, an old-timey neighboring shoe store, local Doodle activists are less prominent than Yale-affiliated ones.
Even some Yalies who never set foot in the Doodle are rallying behind the little diner. Sophomore Marissa Grunes, who never ate at the Doodle, is nonetheless a member of the “Save the Doodle” Facebook group. Another group member, sophomore Brittany Golob, articulates what attracts her to the diner’s cause: “Traditions like cups and hanging out at Naples or Yorkside or Yankee Doodle speak of…what we do now that connects us to Yale’s past.” Perhaps students who are up in arms about the fall of a shoebox restaurant whose threshold they never crossed are simply appropriating another tradition that does not belong to them, just as Yale’s 1920s architects appropriated Cambridge’s spires and gothic towers.
Even students who claim to reject Ivy League elitism nostalgically embrace Yale’s material tradition. For these students, the Doodle represents a New Haven before cheap Chinese food or Starbucks. It stands for a time when twelve seats were enough and when trans fats didn’t have a name. It sits around the corner from J.Press, another bastion of “Old Yale” nostalgia, but it seems that no number of oxford shirts, cufflinks, milkshakes, or cheeseburgers will bring back the good old days. But perhaps the good old days—or our imagined version of them—are not worth preserving. After all, the idealization of “Old Yale” that the Doodle can inspire is not unproblematic. Grunes imagines the diner of yesteryear as “the classless little place that classy people would patronize, where the proprietor is behind the counter, and you know his name and he knows yours…and then of course you leave and become a high-power Yale man and reminisce fondly, but that’s pretty much the end of the love story.”
So, why save the doodle? Maybe Stobierski’s thoughts on his own career apply to the outdated diner as well. “I’m not as good as I used to be,” says the retired competitive eater, whose second record was surpassed in 200 . “My time has passed.” Still, maybe we want to save a vision of ourselves as old-time, scholarly Elis immune to grease and gentrification. As one terribly literary IvyGate blogger wrote, mourning the loss of the Doodle Ivy-wide, “I can totally imagine Franny or Seymour hanging out there!”
Rachel Engler is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.