KINGSPORT — If the painted faces on the wall of the gangster booth at Rush Street could talk, oh the stories they would tell.
Most likely, they’d share the same sadness felt by Rush Street Neighborhood Grill’s customers and employees on Thursday, the final day of operation for the 41-year-old establishment.
People filtered throughout the restaurant on Thursday, hoping to enjoy one last meal before the doors closed that night. Customers were seen hugging bartenders and giving final well wishes to the friendly faces they saw at the restaurant on a regular basis.
For Andrew and Emily Cook, Thursday called for one last burger at Rush Street, where they once had their first date.
“On Dec. 4, 2009, we had our first date,” Emily Cook said. “We went to the movies and came here and ate chocolate cake. He worked here and knew everybody. It brings back a lot of memories. We have eaten here a lot. I came and ate here when he was working.
“It’s not like anything else in Kingsport. It’s different. It’s got a different feel.”
The two sat in what is known as the gangster booth, where painted faces of men in hats and suits have peaked over patrons’ shoulders as they enjoyed salads and specialty pizzas for the past 41 years.
While that particular booth has been a favorite for many customers, for the Feliu family, it’s been more like a family dinner table.
Katie Feliu lives and works in Nashville. But when she heard her father, Mike Feliu, had officially sold the Rush Street property and would soon close the restaurant, she opted to spend her fall break helping out just as she did years before.
“My brother and I came back to help out,” Katie said. “I worked here over 10 years ago. We grew up here — literally. It’s been here longer than I’ve been alive.”
Katie was born six years after her father opened the Kingsport business, which started as the Chicago Dough Company. For the 35-year-old, the restaurant holds memories of helping out on snow days and eating numerous meals at none other than the gangster table with her brother, Michael, who also recently returned to help out at the restaurant.
“That’s where we’d always sit. We’d come after school and sit there and eat croutons and crackers and honey mustard,” Katie said with a laugh. “That was like our dinner table.”
Mike opened the business with the help of Mike Rose and convinced his brother, Jerry Feliu, to join in following a trip to Europe. He later attended The Culinary Institute of America and became a chef elsewhere, but later returned to Rush Street once more. Mike and his wife, Theresa, made the move to Kingsport four years after opening the restaurant and opted to stay here, where they plan to enjoy retirement.
“Selling it, it was just time,” the 71-year-old business owner said. “I want to go where I want to go and I want to see my kids when I want to see them.
“I’m not sad we sold. I’m sad for the relationships.”
The Rush Street story also includes a slew of long-time employees who have worked overtime and then some since the announcement. Some former employees even returned to help serve the immense crowd that has walked through the large wooden doors on Stone Drive.
Jan LeBlanc, who is now the assistant manager, has worked at Rush Street for 41 years, while other employees like Doug Peters, Debbie Stewart, Chris East, Cindy Byrd, Julie Dayton Henry, Kristen Martin, Genena Williamson, Justin Linkous and Dave Fitch worked at the restaurant anywhere from over 10 to over 20 years.
That list also includes Erin Smith, who has worked at Rush Street for 18 years, and Reene Cloyd, who has been there for 35 years. For Smith and Cloyd, Rush Street has been more about family than anything else.
“These guys are my family,” Cloyd said through tears. “This is my last day with them. It’s been very emotional.”
As customers have come in to enjoy their last meal at the Kingsport eatery, some have also asked about purchasing items seen in the restaurant. Items such as the oak wall moldings, the Tiffany lamps and some of the doors have already sold, with other items for sale as well.
“One of my great bar customers wanted the bathroom door,” Mike said. “I said, ‘What would you want that for?’ He said, ‘Mike, I’ve got a garage full of memorabilia. I’ve grabbed that handle so many times.’ They want a piece of this place.”
By Monday, the items will be posted to the Simply Quaint Estate Sales Facebook page for anyone interested in purchasing items. The items can be found at https://www.facebook.com/Simply-Quaint-Estate-Sales- 103361528797582/.
Cloyd said she plans to keep her old liquor cage and building keys, while Michael and Katie both kept a picture each. Meanwhile, Mike and Theresa only kept their family photos — such as their wedding picture that hung in the entryway and a photo of a family friend who played guitar at their wedding.
More than the photos, the Felius said they appreciate the employees, the customers and the memories they shared as a family.
“What I remember is raising my kids and bringing them in for dinner,” Theresa said through tears. “The gangster booth was our kitchen table every night because that’s when they got to see (Mike). … We’d come in and have dinner as a family.”
That family reaches beyond bloodlines for the Felius, who enjoyed the closeness between each other, employees and customers for over 41 years in those old wooden booths.
“I don’t want to say it’s like a death in the family. But we’re losing a big part of our lives,” Katie said, donning an apron in the restaurant one last time. “It will be really hard.
“That’s the biggest thing, how much it really was like family here and hopefully will continue to be.”