When Giants Roamed Yarmouth Port
Two little girls run ahead of their mother through the door of Conelly’s Store in Yarmouth Port, shouting for Jack, who catches them up and swings them around and around. They are dizzy when he sets them down again, and he hands each girl one of the biggest Hershey Bars in the place.
It is the early 1970s and my sister Liz and I are no more than five years old. This is my earliest memory of Jack Braginton-Smith, later the famous curmudgeonly proprietor of Jack’s Outback in Yarmouth Port.
Back then Jack was working for Arthur Conelly in what is now Briarpatch Pediatrics next to Barfield’s lamp repair on Main Street in Yarmouth Port, a small north side village, uniquely alive with local color. It was a tightly knit community inhabited by wonderfully unique characters, such as Ben Muse of Parnassus Book Service, the artist/author Edward Gorey, and of course, Jack Smith.
I like to think of back then as the time giants roamed Yarmouth Port.
I imagine that roaming makes giants hungry, and they need a clubhouse where they can eat, meet, and greet, so when Arthur Conelly closed his store on Main Street, Jack’s Outback was established. “Brian Penry left a vacant house out back, and a group of locals, including Bob Studley, threw in some cash to start Jack’s Outback. At first it seated about 25 to 30, [and] after the addition it seated about 50,” remembered my dad, Sandy Blair.
Jack lived upstairs over the restaurant in a small apartment filled with stuff. He had collections, such as antique glass bottles and books to feed his interest in history. For more than twenty years Jack lived upstairs in the building out back while providing the local community a home downstairs. As Cape Cod became more urban, built up and homogenized, Jack’s Outback offered a local respite full of the color that makes local local. At the time it seemed nothing would ever change, but change does come, and most of the people who frequented the original Jack’s Outback have died, including Jack, Edward Gorey, Ben Muse, and many of the cast of regulars.
Pinning down the story proved elusive, oddly, even to those who were there.
“He sure was a character,” Sandy said of Jack, with a chuckle.
Jack stands tall, defiant, and wild haired in his restaurant’s dusty driveway, waving his arms at the tour bus bearing down on him. The bus is filled with over one hundred tour bus vacationers, which is a lot of tables, but Jack is waving his arms and shouting at them all to go away. Reluctantly the bus departs and peace, of a sort, once more descends.
Jack’s Outback has always been hard to find for the uninitiated. It really is out back, behind the row of buildings lining the main street in front. Back in the day you knew you had found it when you saw the cluster of outhouses.
“The first outhouse arrived on the back of Buddy Cash’s truck. It was a real outhouse and I don’t remember where Jack got it,” Sandy said of the time the outback theme turned even more literal and a lot more silly. In the end there were possibly three outhouses around the place, one with a half moon carved at the top of its door. They looked very official, but as far as I know they were never actually used. Instead they served as a quirky kind of mascot.
If you managed to find Jack’s Outback and get past the outhouses, you still had to navigate the pink flamingoes permanently flocking the front yard. Ilona Kelly worked at Jack’s Outback from 1986. She said the flamingoes came after a softball game when the team from Jack’s Outback lost to the District Attorney’s office team. One of the players at the time was doing a dissertation on decorative lawn ornaments, and soon after the game the flock appeared and stayed. Each Christmas, the flamingoes sported seasonal reindeer costumes.
Once inside Jack’s Outback you still had to figure out the unique system it operated on. Ilona remembers a customer asking her how, with no paper napkins and customers cleaning their own tables and placing their own orders, people were waiting in line to get in.
A bewildered tourist stands at the counter of Jack’s Outback waiting for service and looking for a menu, but there is no service and there are no menus. Closer attention reveals regulars filling out their own order slips from the pile of slips under the counter and inserting them into the order carousel themselves. Slowly, the creatively misspelled list of food items interspaced with Edward Gorey’s art lining the walls reveals itself as a menu of sorts: Chili Today, waffils, korn mufins, salid, and froot. When in Rome, do as the natives, who are finishing their meals and busing their own tables, and if Red Redman didn’t come in every morning early to make it, there wouldn't even be any coffee, and when there is coffee, it is of the strictly self-pouring variety. The bewildered tourist steps back as another regular actually rings up his own check and pays the register. A tip is tossed into the huge lobster pot/tip bowl, and Jack makes a racket banging on it as he does whenever a tip is left. The bowl sports a small Gothic sign, a sketch in black of ghostly mothers and children by Edward Gorey, complete with bat’s wings and the legend “For the Widows and Orphans.”
Someone finally takes pity and explains to the tourist that within the chaos there is order, and a very special way of doing things at Jack’s Outback.
“That was the magic of Jack’s, and woe betide the diner who arrived unprepared to run the gauntlet of everything but the cooking,” Ilona said.
In the course of researching this story, I ran across a Boston Globe article dated March 2004. It tells how Jack’s Outback is under threat of being sold, and what that means to the community calling the place home. I was surprised to see my dad Sandy quoted: “This is my support group in the morning,” said Sandy Blair, 63, a building contractor. “People have known each other for years.”
Ilona remembered Bob Edwards, a constant presence at Jack’s and co-owner of the restaurant.
“There was a time when Bruce Willis and Demi Moore came to the old Jack’s and were smooching it up in the back, and Bob said, ‘Hey honeymooners, this is a family restaurant!’ I think that line made it into the National Inquirer,” Ilona said.
“I saw them in the corner holding hands,” Sandy confirmed.
The morning starts early at Jack’s Outback. Around 8:00 Edward Gorey comes in and sits at the counter with a bowl of cereal. He is quiet. Near the counter Sandy is at a table strategizing a new workday with his building crew, while he also gossips and eats and checks in with friends. Red has made the coffee and locals are grabbing their own cups before they sit down. By lunchtime Ben Muse usually drives his old book-filled station wagon up around the corner from Parnassus as most of the rest of Yarmouth Port shows up. There is a constant hum of chatter with the camaraderie that comes of old friendships. There is the smell of good food cooking, the clatter of dishes, and Jack’s voice reaching above the din to make the snarky comments only he can get away with. The man is a master of sarcasm, and part of the allure of going to Jack’s is getting a hard time from Jack. The Boston Globe story that quoted Sandy calls it “dread.”
“Laughing all day long. That’s what we did. I always thought people got grumpier and grumpier as they aged, but that place proved my theory wrong, as it was so funny. The Friday Club had a meeting there and Sharon Walsh, [who also worked at Jack’s] and I did the menu, and we thought we should hide in the kitchen and not listen, as it might be secret. Members of the cast from the Love Boat would come in when they were playing at the Dennis Playhouse. The Doctor and the Captain would come in and all the ladies from the Friday Club would applaud,” Ilona said.
Ilona said back in the day she made the hollandaise sauce, which was kept suspended above the grill in a state of perpetual non-curdledness. It’s hard not to curdle a hollandaise, so I always wondered how she did it. She said she combined two pounds of butter and 30 egg yolks and Bob would poach the eggs for breakfast Benedicts. “He’d put the hollandaise over the eggs, it was kept at room temperature.” That was the trick: keep the sauce at room temperature and let the heat of the poached eggs warm it.
Jack is hauling out his biggest cooking pots and filling them with spaghetti sauce for the famous spaghetti night dinner. Sharon is making a salad dressing involving a tweak to several huge bottles of Ken’s Steak House Caesar. The air smells of a big Italian dinner as garlic bread heats on the grill. Spaghetti night is the only time Jack’s Outback is open in the evening, and it is bring-your-own wine with an all-you-can-eat menu, and no one wants to miss it. The giants wander in to meet, greet, and eat as the sky darkens.
The word local brings me to the word community. Jack’s Outback was about both. Appointed by a closely-knit local community to manage its clubhouse and installed in the apartment upstairs, Jack nourished his community for many years with sarcasm, food, and a place to hang their hats.
“Jack was generous. He had the biggest heart. He would feed people who couldn’t pay,” Ilona remembered.
The original Jack’s Outback closed its doors not long before Jack’s death, to re-open under new ownership as Jack’s Outback II in 2004. You can still stop by for breakfast or lunch, as my dad Sandy and I did not long ago. We enjoyed the novelty of the service now provided, and on our way out we noticed a small, framed picture of Jack on the wall near the counter and the register.
Jack died in 2005.
“He was my friend till the end,” Sandy said.
When I ate at Jack’s, I always ordered the eggs Benedict, with a healthy side of dread.
Jack’s Outback II, 161 Route 6A, Yarmouth Port
Parnassus Book Service, 220 Route 6A, Yarmouth Port
Edward Gorey House, 8 Strawberry Lane, Yarmouth Port