For more than 21 years, Cecilia and Stephen Lee have been serving homemade, healthy and affordable comfort food at 4015 East Hastings St. in the Heights, but come Tuesday, Dec. 11, owners Cecilia and Stephen Lee will cook their last meals as they head off into retirement.
"We just decided that it was time," said Cecilia. "We've been here for 21 years and we do still live in the community and we just thought it was time. We are so thankful for the ongoing support from the community. ... Things have moved so fast over the past few months. We didn't think we'd be saying goodbye so soon."
While Cecilia is the face of the dining room, Stephen was the man who made magic happen in the kitchen. Daughters Ivy and Stella have also been fixtures at the eatery, with Ivy helping her dad in the kitchen and Stella helping in the front room.
"We're sad, but it's not bittersweet," said Stella, now firmly established in her chosen career as a teacher. "I've been here since I was eight and what I think I'll always remember is all my friends used to have their birthday parties at McDonald's, but all of (mine and Ivy's) birthday parties were here. I remember doing my homework here and helping out. It's a part of us, it's a part of who we are."
Stella said the decision to close up shop came from her parents.
"A couple of months ago, my mom started talking about it and once we realized they were serious, we just wanted to support them in their decision and make it easier for them to retire."
Even as Stella is talking wistfully about her memories of the Gilmore, longtime customer Ray Hustad comes up to say goodbye.
"I've been coming since this place opened," he said. "I used to deliver the mail to this place and since it was a part of my route, I'd come here for lunch. . My route's changed, but I still come here for lunch."
"Now I remember you," said Stella. "I recognized the face, but it wasn't until you said you delivered our mail that I remembered who you were."
Hustad said he'll miss the $5.95 lunch specials at the Gilmore almost as much as he misses the Lee family.
"I grew up in a big family," he said. "And here, I'm able to get home-cooked items like liver and onions and the veal cutlets. You can't beat it here."
Perhaps what has made the Gilmore famous among local carnivores is the $8.95 10-ounce top sirloin steak that was actually more than $10 before the HST came into effect.
"We lowered the price because our customers expect an affordable meal," said Cecilia. "We found that with the steak special, we didn't need to advertise. People would know us as the place to get the $9 steak."
Once retired, Cecilia and Stephen still plan to put their skills to good use.
"I come from a nursing background and Stephen cooks, so we'd be looking at opportunities to volunteer with seniors' groups or any organizations that need cooking for large crowds," said Cecilia. "The community has given us so much so we want to give back where we can."
The soft-spoken chef concurs, saying retirement will also give him the chance to make his kitchen at home the best it can be.
"I love cooking and that will continue," he said.
The next couple of days will see Cecilia and Stephen breaking the news to old customers and friends about their future plans.
"You meet so many people here and it will be sad," she said. "We have regulars who are just learning about our plans, and they're trying to come in more before we leave."
For Stella and Ivy, the legacy of the Gilmore will continue on in their current professions.
"The biggest thing we learned while working here was how hard you have to work to succeed," said Stella. "Our parents' work ethic has been so good and that's what we've tried to do in our own careers. . Seeing my parents work every day, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., that has had an effect on us."
Ivy is now a social worker, but she still enjoys shifts in the kitchen with her dad.
"I think what I learned from my parents is the value of hard work. I see how hard they worked, and that's how hard I've worked at all my jobs," said Ivy.
The Lees have helped their landlords find a new tenant, but after Dec. 11, the restaurant will undergo a major renovation before it is scheduled to reopen as a different, albeit more modern, restaurant.
"We'll have a lot of friends come here to say goodbye," said Cecilia. "We're sad that we won't be able to say a proper farewell to the customers who won't have a chance to come in here before we leave. I don't think there are words to fully express the gratitude and appreciation we have for our customers."
The Gilmore Restaurant is at 4015 East Hastings St. and is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. for breakfast, lunch and dinner, until Dec. 11.