PLEASANTON — Esther Hall had a secret.
One year ago, in September, Hall decided it was time to close the Stable Cafe, the breakfast diner she has owned at the Pleasanton fairgrounds for more than 30 years.
Hall told no one outside her immediate family. In the months since, she continued serving and cooking for her regulars, who have become a second family comprising horsemen, military veterans, members of local service clubs and others.
“I was weighing so much,” Hall said in an interview at the diner, bacon sizzling on a burner nearby. “I miss my kids. I miss my grandkids. But if I leave, will I miss this family more?”
The secret escaped in August, when Hall — who is taking her RV and moving to Utah to be closer to her children there — announced the Stable Cafe would be hanging up its boots. The restaurant’s last day was Friday.
The final farewell drew a hearty crowd. And many customers had dropped in to pay their respects beforehand. Hall jokes that if the diner had been as busy as it’s been over the past month, she’d have been able to “retire retire.”
“Some of the people … I just …,” Hall said. “It’s so hard. My daughter said, ‘It’s so hard when you see these old men crying.’ And I said, ‘I know.’ ”
The Stable Cafe is hidden inside the gates of the Alameda County Fairgrounds. It stands across from the dirt track that hosts horse races at the popular annual fair. The diner was built sometime in the 1970s, Hall estimates. She took ownership of the restaurant about 32 years ago without any experience running an eatery. When the cook at the time died suddenly, Hall said she couldn’t afford to hire a new one.
“I decided I had to cook,” she said. “It’s a one-person operation here. Except for the fair and car show, it’s just me.”
The future of the restaurant space is unclear. Hall suggested someone may interested in taking it over if horse racing can be sustained in Northern California. She said the announced closure of Golden Gate Fields in Albany — the region’s only major racetrack — is raising questions about the viability of the sport locally. If the fairgrounds could again become a space for year-round horse training, Hall said, “someone would love to come take this over.”
News of Stable Cafe’s closure attracted customers to grab a final meal at Hall’s diner. Hall said a woman she knew flew in from Minnesota and stopped in for breakfast. Others have been telling Hall how she’s helped them through rough patches in their lives by lending an ear and talking.
“I had a gentleman who came in today and broke down and cried,” Hall said. “I never realized how many people’s lives I’ve really impacted until now. I never even dreamed until these people are telling me stuff now. I never had a clue. I just thought I was doing my job.”
A chalkboard placed near the cash register served as a tablet for Hall’s own goodbye note.
“Esther has flipped her last egg,” it read. “And her bacon has sizzled out. Thank you all!”