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Order up for Northampton diner

NORTHAMPTON — One night last week a young boy visiting the Bluebonnet Diner with his family could not believe his eyes — the train that he loved to watch circle overhead while he ate had vanished.

Despite assurances from a waitress that the train would be back to chugging along its familiar tracks around the dining room walls of the popular diner at 324 King St. this summer, the distraught boy took a suggestion from the waitress to heart. He borrowed a crayon and penned this letter to owner James Greco: “I am begging because I love the train. I am begging you on knees. Thank you.”

“How can I not?” Greco said this week during an interview at the bustling, long-running King Street diner.

Greco said young and old alike who have spent the past three decades watching the train circle overhead have expressed concern over its recent absence. Rest assured, he tells them, the train is coming back.

“It’s been here for a long time and it’s talked about a lot,” Greco said. “It’s not just kids. We had a man in here the other day saying if ‘you don’t bring the train back, I won’t come back.’ ”

Greco removed the train and track about a month ago in preparation for a much-needed remodel to the restaurant’s “side room” — the dining area next to the original lunch car facing King Street — for the first time in a dozen years. Those improvements involve a new paint job after removal of old wallpaper, new carpet and new light fixtures. The diner’s lounge and banquet hall will also get new carpet as part of the improvements, though the original diner will remain unchanged.

Once the improvements are complete in a few weeks, Greco said he intends to install new train tracks along the same route, including through a small tunnel that runs between the dining room and lounge. Greco said the familiar German-made LGB trains have been replaced with a more modern brand that should be easier to repair and buy replacement parts.

“The train has been out of commission anyway for a little bit now,” Greco said. “I always use an LGB train, but they went out of business and it’s hard to get the parts to fix them.”

Greco said his father Jim, who founded the Bluebonnet Diner in 1950 with his brother, Phil Greco, introduced the train about 30 years ago. It has since become a signature attraction at the establishment, and a prominent part of its business logo.

“You could say it kind of ties into the diner theme,” Greco said. “We’ve always had a train kind of theme thing going on in the background.”

The train became such a popular fixture that the owners gradually expanded the fleet to six or seven steam engines and modern diesels, while adding dining and box cars and a caboose.

Greco rotates the trains periodically depending on the season. He has a U.S.A. train and a Christmas train, for example, as well an ice cream train. He will use the same idea when the new train is introduced, though it will likely run in 20-minute intervals instead of around-the-clock as it has for years.

“The new train is going to look real close to the old ones,” Greco said. “Most people won’t notice a difference. I think with the new train and the new track it will be exciting for people to see.”

The Bluebonnet, whose name is derived from the Texas state flower, originated as a Worcester Lunch Car in 1950 and remained that way until 1960 when the late Greco brothers added a dining room. Seven years later, the business expanded again with the addition of a full-service bar and accompanying dining room that increased the eatery’s seating capacity to its current level of 120, and a 150-seat Florentine Room Banquet Facility in the back of the property for special events.

Bluebonnet is doing well these days, steadily growing at an annual clip of between 5 and 10 percent after holding steady through a few tough years brought on by the recession, Greco said. He added that there are no plans to expand the diner or change its popular menu. The business employs 50 people full- or part-time.

He said recent development on King Street is helping business. In recent months, the former Hill & Dale Mall across from the restaurant has opened with doctors offices for Bay State Health after 18 years of dormancy. A new traffic light and crosswalks is also making it easier for people to get to the restaurant, Greco said. And the addition of two new car dealerships, a pair of new banks and other development has increased foot traffic and helped the business, despite the loss of L-3 KEO (formerly the Kollmorgen Corp.) to Village Hill Northampton, he added.

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