The restaurant that began in a railroad boxcar in San Francisco nearly 40 years ago, hired American icon Johnny Cash as its national spokesman and grew into a large national chain is making its last stand on the Salem waterfront.
A chain that once had more than 100 restaurants is down to one.
Paul Schafer, who has been general manager of the Pickering Wharf restaurant for the past two years, is in the process of buying the restaurant. He became aware of the sole-survivor distinction in a recent book, "Prime Rib & Boxcars: Whatever Happened to Victoria Station?" The novelty was confirmed a few weeks ago, he said, when one of the restaurant's founders visited Salem.
"'Are you sure we're the last one?'" Schafer said he asked Dick Bradley, who started the restaurant with two college buddies.
"'To the best of my knowledge, there's no other open,'" Bradley replied, according to Schafer.
Schafer has notified the city's Licensing Board of his plans to purchase the restaurant and is finalizing the deal with a man who owned the last six Victoria Stations and gradually sold off the properties, according to Schafer. When the Burlington restaurant closed about two years ago, Salem became the sole survivor, a fact that apparently drew little attention.
Over the past decade, the Salem Victoria Station, which sits on prime waterfront real estate, has been the subject of lots of speculation. There had been talk of other restaurants moving to that spot and of Victoria Station closing, reports that turned out to be untrue.
Schafer has heard them all but says just the opposite is true. He is buying a Victoria Station to keep it a Victoria Station.
"I'm honored to be doing this," said Schafer, 58, who previously co-owned restaurants in Ipswich and Gloucester. "This is a great project. ... It's a great location for the North Shore and a great restaurant for Salem. ... I believe it's kind of a cornerstone restaurant. It's got such name recognition, and all I want to do is build back that name."
Keeping the theme
Although the Salem restaurant, which opened 30 years ago, was not designed in the Victoria Station style of attached railroad boxcars, it does have the flavor of the revered British railway station. There are "British Railway Goods" signs and British station names like "West Allerton" and "Poynton." There is even a traditional red phone booth, although the pay phone has been removed.
The links to the past have been enhanced by restaurant memorabilia supplied by former employees and others -- an old Victoria Station newsletter and one of the old menus printed on a wooden board. Schafer has gone online to purchase treasures of his own and has many in a display case inside the restaurant. Along with Victoria Station spoons, postcards and tie pins is an album by Johnny Cash with a song the country star recorded that didn't exactly become a hit -- "Destination Victoria Station."
"It's the worst song in the world," Schafer said with a laugh.
In its heyday, Victoria Station had restaurants from coast to coast and was one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. After about 15 years, the chain started to unravel.
"Some people say it was poor financial management, or it grew too fast," Schafer said. There has been other speculation, he said, that the menu focused too much on prime rib and that the boxcar design limited the seating.
Whatever happened, there is one survivor.
Schafer said he will keep tweaking the menu and may make other changes, but he has no plans on being anything other than Victoria Station.
He likes the name.
"You wouldn't believe how many people come to me and say, 'Oh, I used to go to the Victoria Station in Ohio.' We hear that almost daily," he said. "The name recognition is huge."
Tom Dalton writes for the Salem News of Salem, Mass. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Victoria Station Trivia
First restaurant: San Francisco, 1969
Founders: Cornell University graduates Bob Freeman, Peter Lee and Dick Bradley
Menu speciality: Prime rib
Building design: Attached railroad boxcars
Famous spokesman: Johnny Cash
Peak: Sales of more than $100 million at 100-plus restaurants in 1977
Valley: Bankruptcy filing in 1985
Last restaurant: Salem, Mass.
Source: "Prime Rib & Boxcars: Whatever Happened to Victoria Station?" by Tom Blake