PAWTUCKET — When Ray Mathieu first began serving food at his East Side Checker Club restaurant, a full-course steak dinner was $7.95. Sixty-five years later, food prices have gone up, but a quality meal, complete with soup and salad, could always be counted on at the Benefit Street eatery.
However, with the downtrodden local economy, changing trends in dining and his 95th birthday fast approaching, Mathieu is closing down the restaurant that has been a mainstay for several generations of local residents. December 28 will be the final day for customers to get that prime rib, baked stuffed haddock, chicken soup and other favorites for which the Checker Club was known.
Although he still looks dapper in a sport coat, tie and fedora on a recent day, Mathieu says he is starting to “feel his age” at 94-and-a-half years. “My office is on the second floor and I have trouble now making it up the stairs,” he admitted.
“I enjoyed it, but at this stage of the game, I have to retire,” Mathieu stated. He says the business is for sale, and anyone who is interested is welcome to contact him. However, there is no one in his immediate circle who is ready to take the Checker Club over. His son and daughter, both grown, chose different careers. “They’re both retired and I’m still working,” he says, chuckling.
Mathieu says he feels most sorry for his longtime chef, Joe Braga. “He’s an excellent cook. He did a wonderful job here. And he took over my job,” he said. “He’s a good man, an honest man. I feel bad, for him, about closing.”
Mathieu, who honed his cooking skills in the Navy, started the restaurant at the age of 30. Married and with a family to support, he said his father, Frank, loaned him the start-up money and served as bartender. The building on Benefit Street had been a neighborhood market.
The restaurant got its sporty name, the East Side Checker Club, when Mathieu purchased the liquor license from a Central Avenue bar. At the very beginning, it was more of a social club where customers would have a few drinks and play cards. “I had a charcoal grill in the kitchen and I used to serve charcoal grilled steaks,” he said. Over the years, it became more of a restaurant.”
For many years, life was all about work. Mathieu was employed at the Brown and Sharpe manufacturing company and would go from there to the Checker Club, working from about 4 p.m. until 12 a.m., six days a week. He acknowledges that he was rarely home and credits his late wife, Anna, for handling all of the family and household duties. “I was working all the time. I had to, in order to make ends meet,” he said.
For many years, Mathieu did all of the cooking. His sister, Claire Caufield, was the longtime hostess. They would see a lot of the same faces, year after year, and later, the children of those loyal diners. “Some customers would come in and tell me they used to come here with their mother and father. They would say, ‘I love it…the place never changed,” he said.
Mathieu noted that food prices have continued to rise, and he has tried over the years to maintain quality while keeping the menu affordable. He says he never took shortcuts to his ideal of the fine dining experience. “Very few restaurants give you both soup and salad with dinner,” he notes. “That’s my pride and joy…having people enjoy a good dinner.
However, as a longtime restaurant owner, Mathieu said he has seen the business change in recent years. People don’t have as much extra money as they used to for dining out, and the younger generation seeks out fast food restaurants rather than the traditional “fine dining” experience. Plus, there are more chain restaurants and pizza places in the area now competing for customers.
Mathieu said that since the news of the Checker Club’s impending closing has gotten out, he has heard from many customers expressing their sadness and dismay. Many have told him how much they will miss the restaurant and wonder where they will go now. “That makes me feel good,” he said. “ I always appreciated the good clientele I had,” he said.
Mathieu is also very proud of the fact that, even with its expansive bar area, in all the years that he operated the restaurant, “I never had to call the cops. That’s the kind of establishment I had…I always had good customer.”
Mathieu has found time in his golden years to indulge in one of his passions--seeing the world. With his longtime companion, Nancy McAdams, owner of Anchor Travel, he has ventured far and wide. In the coming months, he is planning to take a cruise, followed by a visit to Turks and Caicos, and, hopefully, Ireland in the spring.
In addition to family, friends, and travel, there is one other thing that Mathieu says he truly loves: his canary yellow 1968 convertible. He has owned the car for about 10 years and keeps a photograph of it hanging at the bar. “That’s my pride and joy in the summertime. And I always leave the top down,” he said, with his trademark smile.
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter @KirwanDonna.