It’s 1951. You’re starting up a new eatery and you need a good theme for it. What’s popular? Outer space, for sure. Everything is “Space Age.” Science fiction movies and TV shows abound. So do UFO sightings. An outer space theme can’t possibly fail. But you’re on a tight budget. You look around and spot two round, tin Coke signs, a couple feet in diameter.
That’s it! You weld them together to make a sandwich-like sculpture, spray-paint the whole thing silver and mount it on a pole in the parking lot, taking care to leave it slightly askew, as if it’s taking flight. You’ve done it! The Flying Saucer restaurant is born.
Located at the junction of Winn and Cambridge Streets, roughly where Dunkin’ Donuts is now, it was nicknamed the “greasy spoon” — a generic moniker for any unpretentious mom-and-pop joint. But it might have fit the Flying Saucer better than most. “They had this coffee can at the end of the grill. They’d scrape the grease into the coffee can,” recalls retired firefighter Jim Fay. “I remember Galipeau standing there with a T-shirt apron. I think everything he cooked that day was still on his shirt.” That’s a reference to Joe Galipeau, the resourceful creator of the Flying Saucer and also the short-order grill man.
Occasional customer Bob Wilkie from Skilton Lane, now 78, says the restaurant resembled a railroad car, long and thin, and the brown, shopworn floor tiles “looked like they were there when Moses was around.”
The place sounds a little raw, eh? But Galipeau had legit talent on board.
“A woman named Millie Swanson from Winn Street did the cooking. It wasn’t the classiest place in the world, but the food was delicious,” recalls frequent customer Jim Nolan, who grew up in a cinderblock house his family built on Arthur Woods Ave.
Millie Swanson’s daughter, 82-year-old Janet Russo, says her mother didn’t have to undergo a rigorous recruiting process to land the job. “Joe’s daughter was my best friend. He probably said to my mother, ‘Hey Mill, you want a job?’ I’m sure she didn’t have to apply. Everybody knew everybody. My mother used to make homemade rolls and Swedish food. She was a fabulous cook. She made pies and breads at home and took them in.”
The Flying Saucer was a habitual lunchtime hangout for the region’s oil truckers, construction crews and highway crews. “During the winter,” Nolan recalls, “when they had bad storms, the state trucks that were usually housed out back would be in the front parking lot, and poker games would be going all night long. They had a couple of pinball machines in there. If fact, the machines took up more space than the booths.”
Like the restaurant itself, those pinball machines proved to be quite habitual. Hitting high scores resulted in cash payouts from the house, a common practice at the time, so they were akin to slot machines. Those machines might have done the Flying Saucer more harm than good. “Some guys were really addicted to them,” Russo says. “Some of them took it so seriously. One guy I remember was there every day. That’s all he did. I said, ‘This guy probably needs some counseling.'”
Nolan thinks the banning of pinball machines* killed the restaurant. Joe Galipeau Jr., 83, now living in Arizona, has a wholly different explanation. “After being in business several years, other restaurants opened, and I think the landlord was raising his rent. He had the opportunity to work for Burlington’s water department, which he accepted. Bye-bye-Flying Saucer.”
What about the beginning? How did the elder Galipeau go from Murphy’s piggery employee to restaurateur overnight? “I have no idea,” says Jr. “When my father wanted to do something, he just did it. There was no family meeting or anything. Is was more of a ‘why not?'”
The term restaurateur barely applies here, Galipeau says. It was more of a truck stop, not a restaurant. It certainly wasn’t a family place. The menu? There wasn’t one. A chalkboard described the daily specials of “rib-stickin’ food,” as Joe Jr. describes it. “You didn’t eat again for the rest of the day.”
*Fast-forward to 1980. Amusement devices were legal, but not always welcome. The Brunswick Bowl-A-Way Lanes (now Storage Unlimited) on Terry Ave. behind Papa Gino’s was under pressure from Burlington police and selectmen because the arcade games seemed to draw an edgy crowd. Car break-ins and drug-related arrests multiplied in the area. In 1980, the alley agreed to eliminate half of the games to appease the town.
Raise your hand if you blew entire rolls of quarters on Missile Command and Asteroids with no chance of a payout from the house. At least the Flying Saucer paid back.