(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
On her last day in the restaurant she’s owned for 15 years, Helene Paquin said her goodbyes today between disappearances behind the kitchen door, where no one could see her eyes well with tears.
“It was overwhelming today,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
When Paquin bought Bakey’s Restaurant at the corner of Water and Broad streets, Thomas Menino was in his first full term as mayor of Boston and Justin Bieber was still in diapers. In the last decade and a half, she turned the cozy little restaurant with its high, wooden booths into an institution in the Financial District and in the process got to know many of her customers on a first-name basis.
“Bakey’s wouldn’t be Bakey’s without all the faithful customers that I had throughout the years,” she said. “Most of them became my friends.”
Those friends packed the bar and filled the booths on Bakey’s last day in business, some stopping by to give Paquin a hug and offer thanks, almost all saying goodbye before they left. Paquin’s husband Mike was there too, helping run the busy restaurant as it gradually sold out of menu items.
“She’s the front of the house; I’m the back of the house,” said Mike Paquin, 70, a retired engineer who has helped out with the books since his wife took over Bakey’s from its first owner, George Bateman, who gave the restaurant his father’s nickname.
He wasn’t the only family in sight. The Paquins’ two grown children were there too, along with their spouses and children, sharing a big table with Helene Paquin’s sister and brother-in-law, who had driven down from New Hampshire for Bakey’s final day.
But her regular customers and her staff said they felt a part of Helene Paquin’s family as well. Thomas Monroe, who lives in Salem and works downtown in the financial services industry, said his wife insisted he have lunch at Bakey’s because she couldn’t get there on Friday.
“She actually called me today to tell me today was Bakey’s last day and demanded that I come here,” said Monroe, 31. He would have been there anyway, he said, as he has been on a regular basis, at least once a month for the past 12 years.
“The first time I was in here I was 19 years old, in my first job, and they gave me a tour of the neighborhood and brought me here for my first lunch on my first day,” Monroe said. “My wife and I are going to miss it terribly.”
They aren’t the only ones. Paquin said most of her staff had been with her 10 or 12 years. A relative newcomer is Gina James, Bakey’s bartender and bar manager, who said she never imagined herself working in a restaurant and wouldn’t have stayed if not for Paquin.
“I thought that I was going to work here for a few weeks and it will be five years this year,” said James, 34, who lives in Roxbury. “I fell in love with Helene and the people that walk in here every day.”
James said that people don’t realize the Financial District is a neighborhood like the North End or Beacon Hill, where people know each other and experience a feeling of community. She wonders, though, if it will be able to retain that feeling as the neighborhood changes over time.
After the closing, James spends to take some time off to be with her baby, whose first birthday is next week. She said the other staff members already have other jobs, because the lunch rush at Bakey’s only keeps them busy a few hours a day. With its location deep in the financial district, the restaurant has never seen much nighttime business.
And what will Helene Paquin do? She has some ideas, but when she talks about the future she sounds like she hasn’t had much time to figure it all out.
“It will be interesting to see how I feel about that, but I still have a lot of packing up to do,” she said.
Paquin decided to close the restaurant when the building was sold and the new owner announced that it needed repairs and improvements that would require Paquin to close for six months. After that it will reopen with higher rents.
Paquin felt it just didn’t make sense for her to reopen Bakey’s, so she sold the restaurant and all fixtures to Cliff Dever, president of Endever Hospitality Group, who will reopen under a new name in the spring.
“I decided to take this opportunity to retire, but it’s bittersweet,” she said. She’s looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren and to playing tennis and golf. She wants to travel more, and to visit her three sisters in Switzerland, where she grew up.
“They’re very excited,” she said.
Others may credit Paquin for Bakey’s success, but she demurely insists that it’s the setup that makes it irresistible: the high partitions that give people privacy and the relative quiet that encourages chatting — and negotiating.
“It’s an institution that will be missed by a lot of people because of the booths we have here — many deals have been made,” she said. “We do not have televisions, so people have to carry a conversation.”
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)