In Portsmouth: Cindy hangs up her spatula

Popular and homey breakfast/lunch spot closes after 20 years in business

By Jim McGaw
Posted 4/11/23

PORTSMOUTH — Cindy Morse was even busier than usual at her restaurant Saturday morning. 

Besides flipping her famous stuffed French toast, greasing up the griddle for homemade …

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In Portsmouth: Cindy hangs up her spatula

Popular and homey breakfast/lunch spot closes after 20 years in business

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Cindy Morse was even busier than usual at her restaurant Saturday morning. 

Besides flipping her famous stuffed French toast, greasing up the griddle for homemade corned beef hash, or throwing another order of home fries next to that, she had a lot of goodbyes to say — and a few tears to shed.

After 20 years of making connections through food at Cindy’s Country Cafe, located across from Melville Elementary School on West Main Road, Morse traded in her apron for the next chapter in her life.

A culinary institution in Portsmouth since it first opened in 2003, the restaurant’s 26-seat dining room and 12-seat breakfast bar was always full on the weekends, as regulars swapped local gossip, indulged in homemade muffins and chewed the facts with Morse and her worker bees.

For them, Cindy’s was home.

“I always wanted it to be like you walk in and felt like you were at your aunt’s house, and your aunt was standing there cooking for you and you’re sitting at the breakfast bar and we’re talking,” said Morse during a brief break from behind the grill on Saturday. “That’s how I got to know all my customers. I was their aunt. I watched my customers grow up in 20 years, get married, and have children of their own — and bring their children here. That’s been wonderful.”

A few hours before she closed on Saturday, Morse was honored with proclamations and citations from the State of Rhode Island and Town of Portsmouth by three Portsmouth state legislators — Rep. Terri Cortvriend, Rep. Michelle McGaw, and Sen. Linda Ujifusa — as well as Town Council member J. Mark Ryan. (McGaw is the wife of Jim McGaw, this story’s author.)

Before she opened Cindy’s, Morse was the food and beverage director at Vanderbilt Hall, a luxury hotel in Newport. She also spent a year as a chef for the Wanumetonomy Golf and Country Club in Middletown, was once part of the nighttime waitstaff at White Horse Tavern in Newport, and was employed at the Hotel Viking for seven years.

Wanted more time to be a mom

She got the idea of running her own restaurant after experiencing an epiphany more than two decades ago.

“I came home one day and ended up paying my babysitter my entire paycheck — and part of my husband’s,” Morse recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not raising my children,’ and decided then and there that I was going to stop. So I gave them three weeks’ notice and took the entire summer off to be with my kids.”

Her youngest was heading into kindergarten in Middletown — the only town in the state with a full-time program at the time, she said. 

“She went off to kindergarten and I sat and opened up the paper that first day, and this was for sale,” she said, referring to the building at 1324 West Main Road. “I said, that’s what I’m going to do because at 3 o’clock, I can come home and get my child off the school bus and then mommy her.”

Moe Segerson, who jokes that her boss is quitting the restaurant business to join a roller derby team, has worked at Cindy’s for six years.

“I worked part-time for Cindy before the pandemic, just a couple of days a week. After the pandemic, I worked with Cindy solely and full-time,” Segerson said. 

They’ve been tight for years, however. Morse trained Segerson at Hotel Viking 30 years ago, and the latter gave up her career to come back to work at Cindy’s.

“I’m going to miss Cindy every single day,” said Segerson. “Cindy is an amazing human and in addition to that, she’s probably the best boss I’ve had — and my best friend.”

Morse, she noted, is the only person who’s ever been able to get her out of bed early in the morning. “The only thing I require about my next life: I hate working early  mornings, and I was a poker dealer at Foxwoods before this. I’m going back to being a night owl,” Segerson said.

Future plans?

As for Morse, she doesn’t know exactly what she’ll do next, despite a few job offers. Her main goal is to reconnect with family and friends.

“I want to spend more time with my family, and my family lives all out of state so I was never able to take the time off to visit or stay with them,” she said. “My husband is out in Jackson, Wyoming. My daughter and her husband live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. All my cousins are all in the upper part of Maine, up near Bangor, and in New Hampshire, up near Franconia. So I’d like to go spend time with family and friends. Get back in the loop and go do wild girl weekends and stuff like that.”

Steve Forand, one of her regulars, has been coming to Cindy’s a couple times a week for nearly 20 years. He loves the “homey” and “local” feel of the place.

“You feel at home here, and Cindy’s a great cook to boot,” Forand said.

While he loves breakfast best, he said Morse’s potato salad, which you could order in the afternoon, “is to die for.”

So where’s he going to go for breakfast and lunch now?

“I have no idea,” said Forand. “I have to stop crying first.”

Morse said she’ll miss her loyal customers, like Forand, the most.

“They come to my house, they’ve been to my kids’ graduations, they’ve gone to my kids’ weddings. They’ve come to birthday parties and barbecues. I’ve been to their houses. That’s what I’m going to miss — the camaraderie,” she said.

Morse already misses the professional sailors who come back in April and May, because she’s not going to be there when they do.

“That’s hard, but they’ve already got word down in Antigua, where they are, that I’m not going to be back,” she said. “I’ve been getting phone calls for the last week from all the guys saying, ‘Cindy, what’s going on? What do you mean you’re not going to be there? Can we come by the house?’ I say of course you can, we’ll have a barbecue or something.”

Although Morse has left the building, the restaurant will carry on. The building was purchased by Michael and Mackenzie Angell, who plan on re-opening it next month, according to a post on Cindy’s Country Cafe’s Facebook page. They even plan on keeping stuffed French toast on the menu, Morse said.

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