Restaurants we miss: Whatever happened to Taunton landmark Hickey's Diner? (2023)

TAUNTON — Once upon a time, if you were in downtown Taunton, looking for a bite to eat, nothing could be finer than to eat at Hickey’s Diner.

For more than 40 years, Hickey’s lunch wagon was a Taunton landmark, drawing customers from the city and beyond.

The man behind it all, John Francis Hickey Jr., often called Jack, was Taunton’s “last lunch wagon man.”

Hickey’s used to sit by the Green, or on Court Street, depending on the time of day, feeding hundreds of hungry people each day. At one point, you could even buy a Hickey’s lunch wagon T-shirt.

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It’s been a long time since the old diner was seen downtown: after Hickey retired in 1986, the diner was purchased by the city and restored by students at Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School, with the goal of bringing it back out for special events, like Taunton’s Christmas parade.

It’s from that point that the story of Hickey’s lunch wagon takes several twists, a sad turn involving a diner museum that never came to be,and ultimately is carted off into mystery:

Hickey’s current whereabouts seem to be unknown.

From a treasured Taunton landmark, to currently missing, there’s still a chance that the story of Hickey’s Diner hasn’t come to an end just yet.

Taunton: The lunch wagon city?

At one point, Taunton had four lunch wagons, one on each side of the Green.

The diners were owned by James H. Smith, Arthur T. Brady, Andrew J. Galligan, Timothy F. Mahoney, and Michael J. Behan, according to “Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Eat At Hickey’s Diner,” a 1992 AP English essay written by Hickey descendant Kelsey Koehler.

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According to “American Diner Then & Now” (1993) by Richard J.S. Gutman, a 19th-century city ordinance allowed these lunch wagons to operate from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m.

Some of them were still horse-drawn as late as 1938.

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John Hickey, the man behind the counter

John Francis Hickey Jr. was born March 4, 1916. He was a 1936 graduate of the Wentworth Institute of Technology, where he trained as an architectural draftsman.

After graduation, he had trouble finding work, but eventually, in 1942, he started working as a counterman at Galligan’s, one of the night lunch wagons.

Two years later, he decided to go into business for himself, buying his own diner from Brady in 1944. It was an eight-stool, horse-drawn unit, mounted on a 1938 white truck.

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Hickey married Rita A. Levesque of Taunton and they lived on Fayette Place, raising eight children: Michael, Peter, Marsha, Judith, Patricia, Joyce, Thomasand William.

Michael, Thomas and Peter later worked in the diner with him, according to Koehler.

Rita Hickey was the daughter of Honore and Alice (Baril) Levesque. She was a member of the Queen’s Daughters, a charitable society associated with the Conference of St. Vincent de Paul. Rita assisted with food prep at the diner, and she worked at Metals and Controls in Attleboro. She enjoyed sewing, knitting, readingand was an avid Yankees fan and a hockey fan, according to her obituary. She died on Dec. 23, 2009, at age 89.

John Hickey attended St. Mary’s Church and was a member of Taunton Elks Lodge 150. His parents were John F. and Alice L. (Durnin) Hickey. He retired in 1986 at age 70, after undergoing heart surgery. He died June 15, 1989, at age 73, of a heart condition.

But his legacy as a local restaurateur and a Tauntonian continues to live on.

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Hickey’s Diner: Lunch wagon and Taunton landmark

After purchasing his first diner in 1944, Hickey went on to design a 10-stool model with Charlie Gemme and the Worcester Lunch Car Company in Worcester, which, according to Gutman, was built in 1947 on the same old truck. When that truck eventually wore out, it was replaced with a 1954 Chevrolet.

According to Koehler, the new Hickey’s diner was the last of its kind from the Worcester Lunch Car Company.

The Worcester Lunch Car Company was, of course, a Worcester-based manufacturer, that operated from 1906 to 1957. During its time, the company produced 651 diners. It was started by Philip H. Duprey and Grenville Stoddard, and they shipped diners all over the Eastern Seaboard. All of its assets were dissolved in 1961.

According to Hemmings Motor News, the company’s diners were the first patented diners.

A saysit was this company that introduced fixed stools to sit on at the diner.

“What made WLCC diners unique were their patented barrel roof design and the porcelain panels on which the name of the diner was painted. A Worcester Lunch Car was a world of porcelain and chrome and Formica and neon and steam. A good diner is a place that percolates and steams,” writes Siddle.

In 1951, Gutman writes, Hickey leased a small plot on Court Street, and began operating a day shift.

From that point on, Hickey’s, which was in the heart of Taunton for 42 years, spent the hours between 6:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Court Street, and then it was hauled to Taunton Green in time for 4 p.m.

Koelher says that Hickey only ever missed one day of work, except for holidays and Sundays, and that was when Hurricane Carol caused the Mill River to flood in 1954.

He even held steady through the Blizzard of ‘78, and was presented with a “Certificate of Survival” after the storm.

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Famous customers

Operating during the years when Taunton was a hub for passing travelers (this was before the highways took away a lot of traffic from the city), and during a time when Roseland Ballroom was still hosting big bands, Hickey’s boasted some famous customers.

There was Roy “Campy” Campanella, a catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1948 until 1957. Because Black players were kept out of the major leagues by racist policies, Campanella began his career in the Negro and Mexican leagues, where he played for nine years before entering the minors in 1946. He went on to spend the rest of his career with the Dodgers, before being paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1958. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.

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Big band leader Sammy Kaye was also a Hickey’s customer. He had big hits with “Swing and Sway” (1937) and “Harbor Lights” (1950), which reached the top of the Billboard charts. Kaye was known for inviting audience participation during his band’s performances. He made records with Vocalion Records, RCA Victor, Columbia Records, Bell Records, and Decca. His work was destroyed in the 2008 Universal Studios fire, which destroyed three acres of the Universal backlot, 40,000 to 50,000 archived digital video and film copies, and 118,000 to 175,000 audio master tapes.

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Hickey's inspired a song

Locally, Hickey’s served more than 300 customers a day, according to Koehler.

The diner was widely considered a city landmark, and it was so popular that Hickey even sold T-shirts.

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Gutman says that in later years, his sons worked there with him at night, in addition to their regular jobs.

His daughter Judith even wrote a song about the diner:

Nothing could be finer than to eat at Hickey’s Diner in the morning.

Bacon, eggs, toast, or juice, you get them all at Hickey’s in the morning.

And if you wake up sleepy and you want a surprise, a cup of Jack’s coffee will open your eyes.

So if you want a place to meet, or just a little bite to eat, it’s Hickey’s Diner.

End of an era: Hickey retires, diner shuts down

When it came time to retire, Hickey wanted to pass the business on, but Gutman says he asked his sons, “Who wants to work seventy-five hours a week today, with no benefits and no vacations?”

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The hours had gotten to be too much for Hickey’s heart, so he decided to retire at age 70, for the sake of his health.

Hickey’s Diner closed on March 3, 1986.

Upon his retirement, Koehler says that Hickey was presented with “two color photographs of his diner mounted on a plaque, a key to the city from one of his ‘regulars’ — Councilor Robert W. Studley — at a City Council meeting. He received a standing ovation and a proclamation from Mayor Richard Johnson.”

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Koehler goes on to say that Hickey held his key to the city and said, “This is something which I will cherish eternally. Never, never will I be anything but a Tauntonian.”

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Hickey’s Diner moves to Bristol-Plymouth

For a time after its closing, Hickey’s stayed in Taunton.

The Smithsonian Institution wanted it, so they could continue to run it as a diner, but Koehler writes that, due to stipulations of a food contract that the institution had, this wasn’t possible.

So instead, the diner stayed right here in the city.

It was moved over to Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School, and restored by B-P students: “Carpentry students refinished and refurbished the diner, the automotive students fixed the truck, and the electrical students rewired the diner,” Koehler writes.

In 1995, the diner was part of an exhibit celebrating diners as art at the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington. The exhibit was curated by Gutman, who was also a Hickey’s customer dating back to the early 1970s.

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As the diner couldn’t be stored inside the facilities at B-P, over time the weather began to get to it.

Increasingly, it was looking like Hickey’s would need a new home.

Given everything that happened next, it’s possible that Hickey’s might have fared better had it stayed here in the city, despite being exposed to the elements.

The American Diner Museum buys Hickey’s Diner

In late 1998, it seemed that a solution had been found for how to once more restore Hickey’s and keep it as a place where people could still go and visit, even if it was as a museum piece and not a working diner.

An Oct. 9, 1998,Taunton Daily Gazette editorial called for the diner to go to the American Diner Museum in Providence.

Not long after, that is precisely what happened.

According to a Nov. 20, 1998 Taunton Daily Gazette story by Brian A. Miller, the diner museum, and Daniel Zilka, purchased Hickey’s from B-P for $1, a common figure when organizations purchase historic properties for preservation. The museum planned to restore it and open it as a traveling exhibit, and the City of Taunton hopedto reserve the right to book Hickey’s to return to the city for special events.

However, the American Diner Museum had not yet established a physical location in Providence. It was still a museum in name only, planned as part of the Heritage Harbour Museums on Benevolent Street.

A Jan. 22, 1999 Providence Journal article by C.J. Chivers says that Hickey’s was brought to Providence for inspection and repairs after being purchased by Zilka.

“The museum hopes to restore and repair the diner," Zilka said, and use it as a promotional tool, serving its menu at such events as WaterFire and the Independence Day parade in Bristol.”

The diner was to be worked on at Coletta’s Garage in Providence.

Insofar as following the trail that Hickey’s traveled once it left Taunton goes, this is where things start to get murky and the trail begins to grow somewhat cold.

The diner may or may not have been worked on at Coletta’s. A request seeking comment from the garage has not been returned as of this writing.

When looking up contact information for the American Diner Museum, the first result is for the Rhode Island Historical Society.

According to an email from Rhode Island Historical Society reference staff, “While there was some overlap in leadership years ago, the Heritage Harbour Museum/Foundation was a separate organization from RIHS. I don’t believe the project for the physical museum was ever finalized but Heritage Harbour is still an active organization.”

Any website links for the diner museum, which claims to be virtual, no longer work. The domains appear to have been purchased by other outlets.

Zilka’s website does the same thing; the link goes to another outlet.

The Heritage Harbour Foundation is still an active organization, but Grants Chairman Russell DeSimone says that the foundation has no information on Hickey’s lunch wagon.

Where is Hickey’s lunch wagon?

After that, the leads get thinner and the trail goes colder.

The last confirmed Hickey’s sighting that the Gazette was able to find is more than 10 years old.

A Nov. 9, 2007 Providence Journal article by Neil Downing says that the Rhode Island Training School, a juvenile detention facility, was working on a project for the youths there to help restore old diners for the American Diner Museum. The project was funded by donations — Bryant University students even held a fundraiser, the subject of the aforementioned2007 story — with the first restoration project being Mike’s Diner, which had operated in Providence. Hickey’s Diner, Sherwood's Diner and Louis’ Diner were also part of later plans, with the intention for them to be restored for commercial use.

As far as Hickey’s goes, there is some evidence that restoration work was done to the diner in 2008.

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The training school’s New Hope Diner Project had a blog, featuring pictures of the juvenile detainees working on restoring the diner in June 2008.

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There is a contact email on the blog, but requests seeking comment bounced back, saying that the email was undeliverable. The address is no longer working.

A 2017 story by the Associated Press confirms that the restoration work was at least done: according to the AP, Hickey’s was the only diner that was actually restored by the training school, before the correctional facility moved to Cranston, Rhode Island, and the program folded.

There is a YouTube video from a local morning news program in Philadelphia, with some footage of the restoration work. The video was filmed in Philadelphia at the Penrose Diner, to discuss the New Hope Diner Project. Footage from the Rhode Island Training School shows some young men restoring Hickey’s Diner as part of the program. The video says, “a local restaurant in Providence, Angelo’s, is actually going to manage it, and give these kids the opportunity to work there.”

If it is the Angelo’s located on Atwells Avenue in Providence, they have not returned a request from the Gazette seeking comment. The Gazette plans to follow up at a future date to see if the diner is in fact there, or if there is anyone who knows where Hickey’s could be.

From there, the trail runs cold.

Zilka and Worcester diner controversy

Hickey’s is not the first diner to fall on rough luck after being purchased by Daniel Zilka.

That same 2017 Associated Press story focuses on Sherwood’s Diner, and Worcester’s struggles to get it back. The diner had been sitting in a lot in Sutton, after taking a similar journey to Hickey’s: purchase by the diner museum, a planned restoration, and then, ultimately, winding up sitting in a lot. Worcester had been trying to purchase the diner back from Zilka, who said in an interview he wanted the museum to be reimbursed for previous moving costs associated with bringing the diner from Auburn, where it was last used, to Rhode Island.

Zilka said in that same story that all he wanted was some thanks for the museum’s restoration efforts.

Unlike Hickey’s, Sherwood’s story has a happier ending:

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As of August 2021, Sherwood’s Diner is back home in Worcester, now at Polar Park. The Worcester Red Sox helped bring the old diner back to life, and it’s now home to the WooSox Foundation.

Do you know where Hickey’s Diner is?

What began as a fun nostalgia piece about one of the restaurants that Tauntonians missed has turned into an as-yet unsolved mystery.

Other than the sources quoted in this story, no one else has returned the Gazette’s requests seeking comment.

This digital producer and her father even took a trip to Pawtucket, because he remembered seeing a diner sitting in a lot there, near where the old Slater Mill used to be. There are houses being built on the spot, in a project funded by Centreville Bank. A request for comment from the bank, as to whether anyone saw a diner in that spot before ground was broken on this new project, has gone unanswered as of this writing.

Is Hickey’s at Angelo’s?

Is it somewhere else?

Is Hickey’s gone?

If you have any leads as to the diner’s whereabouts, or if you know where it is, send an email to or

John Hickey said that he would never be anything but a Tauntonian, so as fellow Tauntonians, let’s see if we can find his diner.

Taunton Daily Gazette/Herald Newscopy editor and digital producer Kristina Fontes can be reached at Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News and Taunton Daily Gazette today.

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