Lori Arnold and Sharon Seever took their place Sunday among the throngs of customers waiting outside the Vineyard restaurant in Anoka to dine -- one last time -- on prime rib, "The Salad" and other Vineyard favorites.
Hours later, the two friends walked out clutching two large doggie bags. "We really pigged out," Seever said, laughing. "It was wonderful."
Betty Brenny, who said she has been coming to the restaurant for decades, was after a memento of a different kind. She snipped a piece of the ivy covering the building.
Other customers posed for photos in front of the round Vineyard sign.
"It's been the fine dining spot for Anoka," said Mayor Phil Rice. "It has terrific food."
Some of those who waited to feast one more time on the Vineyard's famed prime rib or "The Salad" have been coming ever since it opened in 1981, said owner Bob Schachtschneider. Some have been patrons since the 1970s, when he ran a Mr. Steak restaurant in Fridley and before that in Columbia Heights.
Schachtschneider, 67, sold his property on Hwy. 10 at Thurston Avenue to the city of Anoka and the state for $1.3 million for a future highway interchange. He said he had wanted to sell since 2005, when his wife, Barb, retired as an Anoka County social worker. But he would have lost value because of uncertainty over whether his 1.7-acre site would be needed for the interchange and highway upgrade.
A year ago, officials told him "the ramp from Thurston to Hwy. 10 would go through the dining room," he said. That's when he decided to seal the deal, even though he could have remained open for a few more years. City officials said the interchange probably won't be built for at least seven or eight years.
For the past month, loyal customers have lined up for the Vineyard's 4 p.m. opening time. They hoped to dine or snuggle once more in its barrel booths and enjoy steak, seafood, its famed bacon-and-cauliflower salad and memories of repasts past.
"We've had hundreds of engagements here," Schachtschneider said, including at least a dozen staff members who proposed marriage there. Couples like the semi-private barrel booths, he said, and staffers cooperated with beaus' ideas such as putting engagement rings on drink straws, in ice cubes or on cakes.
Schachtschneider said the Vineyard served about 600 a night during its final weeks.
"It's an emotional event on a daily basis. The staff cries and the customers come in crying because this is where they have gone for anniversaries for years, or got engaged," he said. "It's kind of like pulling the plug on a dear relative."
He said he is thankful to a 45-person staff that has been as loyal as his guests. His servers' average tenure is 13.5 years, and his four top managers have been with him for 15 to 28 years.
By midafternoon Sunday, the Vineyard had served more than 500 people, and Schachtschneider estimated that by closing time they would have served well more than 1,000.
"Beautiful and very, very bittersweet" was how waitress Dottie Berg described her last day on the job. She has worked there since 1985. "Whenever we see a guest we know really well -- and there are so many -- the tears start to run."
The Vineyard has been a great business for 28 years and a destination for many in the metro area, said Bob Kirschner, Anoka's community development director. "We'd love to see somebody pick up the business and keep operating in Anoka," he said.
Kirschner said the city would help relocate the restaurant, possibly to a vacant building across Hwy. 10.
City officials said preliminary plans show the interchange would access an elevated Hwy. 10 that would extend over and eliminate traffic-slowing lights at Thurston and Fairoak avenues. Kirschner said a number of other properties must be acquired along Hwy. 10 to complete the project.
The $1.31 million pricetag for the Vineyard will come from a Metropolitan Council revolving loan fund for acquiring land of willing sellers and will be repaid with state or federal transportation funds, Kirschner said.
Schachtschneider said that before 2003, when the Vineyard offered lunch as well as dinner, it served nearly 15,000 people a month -- about the population of Anoka.
"It's been a wonderful run," he said.