Hundreds of people packed the parking lot at the Westmoreland Village Shopping Center on Sunday to pass through the buffet at the Piccadilly Cafeteria one last time.
“This is old stomping grounds for us,” Dottie Michelli, 84, said.
Michelli and her sister, Sylvia Millard, 90, used to watch movies at the Ogden Theater in the 1950s, then cross Government Street and eat at Piccadilly.
“I’m disappointed,” Michelli said.
The neighborhood restaurant closed Sunday night after serving hot Dilly dishes of fried fish, fried chicken and Salisbury steak to Baton Rouge residents for about 55 years.
Piccadilly officials provided no reason for the closure. By Sunday, the restaurant had been removed from the list of restaurants on the company’s website.
Sunday started off slowly, but once church services ended, people began arriving in droves. The food service line snaked out the front door. Some waited in line for about 20 minutes. The parking lot filled up quickly, forcing people to park in the grass behind the lot.
“It’s like losing a member of your family,” the Rev. Louis J. Hamilton Sr., 75, said.
When asked how he felt about the restaurant closing, Hamilton hung his head and closed his eyes.
He said he’s been frequenting the restaurant for more than 30 years since he lived on Watts Alley, which is now Marcellious Lane off Government Street.
He often would pick up a to-go lunch on Sundays after the 8:30 a.m. service at New Light Baptist Church in Baker and before he went to work at Angelwood Driving School on South Acadian Thruway.
It also holds a special place in his heart because his daughter worked as a baker there right out of high school before starting LSU several years ago.
“It’s a special atmosphere with special people,” he said as he stepped in the door to get his favorite meal one last time: chopped beef, rice and gravy and cornbread.
Dottie Harman, 84, also ate there on Sunday after eating at the restaurant for more than 50 years.
She said she was looking forward to eating liver and onions with extra onions, and fried okra one last time.
“The food’s always good,” Harman said. “It’s entertaining and it’s convenient, and you don’t have to wash dishes.”
The old conveyor belt that moves the dirty dishes into the kitchen fascinated some residents when they ate there as children.
“You always wanted to sit near it as a kid,” Wendy Martin, 43, said as she left the restaurant with her husband, Patrick Martin, 46, and 1-year-old daughter, Mia Martin.
Both Wendy and her husband grew up in the restaurant, eating there nearly every Sunday with their families.
The Martins said they noticed that the Sunday crowd had dwindled in recent years, so while the closing was not a shock, it did leave them sad.
“It’s our neighborhood Piccadilly,” Patrick Martin said.
Inside the restaurant, Henry Gray played the piano and entertained diners as he has at the location for 12 years. He said he will continue entertaining diners at the Florida Boulevard location.
Also at the restaurant Sunday was Julia Hamilton, 93, whose family transformed Piccadilly after buying it in 1944 and turning it into the buffet-style restaurant that it is today.
The company grew steadily, going public in 1979, before running into financial problems as customers turned away from cafeteria-style dining.
Hamilton dined on red beans and rice, cabbage and sweet potatoes in between the many well-wishers who dropped by the table to express their sadness at the closing.
She said the day was bittersweet for her, but she is proud that the restaurant stayed open for so long and that they were one of the first restaurants in Baton Rouge to serve black people.
“I thought it was really special the first time we came here,” Hamilton said.
There were plans to close the restaurant in 1993, but it continued operating after Piccadilly dropped plans to open a restaurant at Perkins Road and Balis Drive.
The day also was bittersweet for Carl Deen, 88, a retired architect.
A customer for nearly 50 years, Deen said he loved the seafood dishes, particularly the gumbo and étouffée, as well as the music. He had seafood and okra gumbo for lunch Sunday and also ordered some to go so he can have it for lunch next Sunday.
“I hate to see it closed,” he said.
Deen said he cherished the time he spent at the restaurant with his wife, who died more than eight years ago.
“I didn’t learn enough about cooking from my wife, so this was a good place to get away from my cooking,” Deen said.
Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter @ryanmbroussard.