Just now, Gina Stanley is a wee bit tired. It might have something to do with the effort it takes to hobble around on crutches, ankle throbbing. Or it could be the mononucleosis she’s been battling.

But definitely it has something to do with 17 straight years of owning and running the Art Cliff diner. The diner itself turns 75 next year, but it might not have reached its diamond jubilee if Regina Lynn Stanley hadn’t come along with a vision in 2000.

courtesy Gina Stanley

It is no exaggeration to say that Gina has poured her heart and soul into the diner, a place that’s as close to being a Vineyard icon as any restaurant can be. That’s her bull’s eye on the menu. (One codfish cake, two eggs, arugula, spicy hollandaise, and mustard oil.) Those are her cinnamon buns, her crêpes, her frittatas, her Benedicts. Her almond-crusted French toast. That’s her art on the walls, her vintage Americana on the shelves.

And those are her fans waiting outside the diner. Islanders, visitors, celebs, politicians — they’re all in line. With the Art Cliff, Gina has achieved something unique — a down-home vibe that also feels hip, with food that can satisfy everyone from a picky child to a serious foodie.

I found it hard to see Gina so pooped when I stopped by her house last week. She is normally as bouncy as a prize fighter coming off the ropes. But I was also relieved to see Austin Racine in Gina’s kitchen, up from the diner to check in with the boss. Austin has worked on and off for Gina since he was 19; after a long stretch as the well-loved chef at State Road and Beach Road restaurants, he had planned a variety of activities for this summer, with just a few days helping Gina with the food truck. When she fell and broke her ankle on the loading dock a few weeks ago, he stepped into five days a week at the diner. (And the food truck will be closed for now.)

“It’s the second time he’s saved my butt,” Gina said, explaining that Austin helped her when her mom was ill with cancer 10 years ago.

Jeanna Shepard

As I talked with Gina, her leg propped on a pile of pillows to ease the swelling, I found myself thinking how auspicious it was for a languishing diner to fall into the hands of a woman who is so talented, both at the stove and at the business of making money. “She is brilliant,” says Daniele Dominick, chef/owner of the Scottish Bakehouse, who was also Gina’s first employee.

Gina laughs when she hears this. “Boy did Daniele have to put up with a lot.”

Born into a big Italian family and raised in Yonkers, Gina learned to cook from her Mom, who was a great cook. But after high school, she didn’t think of cooking as a career at first. She studied fashion design and was about to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York when she realized she was having a blast at her catering job — and already getting compliments for both her cooking and her presentation.

So instead of FIT, Gina went to the CIA (the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park), where she excelled in her cooking classes and in front of the house work as well. “Because I loved getting dressed up, loved doing the flowers, loved talking to people,” she said.

Jeanna Shepard

After graduation, some people tried to encourage Gina to pursue a front-of-the house career, but she got the sense that this was because she was a woman. That, of course, made her want to work in the kitchen even more.

That feisty spirit and I’ll-show-them attitude carried Gina into some of the best kitchens in Washington, D.C., where she first worked for the exclusive Ridgewell Caterers, and later talked her way into a job in the mostly male kitchen of Lespinasse in the Carlton Hotel, considered the finest (and most expensive) French restaurant in the city (sister to the New York Lespinasse in the St. Regis). At Lespinasse, Gina had an opportunity to work with the super talented French pastry chef Jean-François Foucher.

“He was amazing. The stuff he did was crazy beautiful. I felt like I was in school every day at Lespinasse,” she remembered.

While she was working at Lespinasse, Gina was also working at Blair House, the official guest residence of The White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. She was in charge of pastry, serving intimate dinners to foreign dignitaries, cabinet members, and ambassadors. She landed that job after catering a huge party at the Austrian embassy (out of her apartment — don’t ask!), where the White House protocol staffers tasted her food and asked her to try out for a job.

Jeanna Shepard

“I was lucky, because I worked at Blair House from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then at Lespinasse from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Then I took the bus home,” she said.

Lucky? But um, that’s a lot of hard work.

Yes, and since all these jobs were still not paying much, Gina decided to take a little sum, about $300 from a catering job, and invest it in the stock market.

Less than a year later, she had made $80,000. Gina told me: “I’d come home at the end of the day from these jobs, where I made very little, and I’d see that I made $4,000 or $5,000 in a day on the stock market!” She’d invested in Ameritrade, Netscape, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon. “I loved reading about all the companies. It was fascinating,” said the woman who claims academics were never her thing and that putting pen to paper is difficult for her. And yet I looked around and saw hundreds and hundreds of books in her home. Reading — that she loves. (And, as she admitted to me later, “I think I’m just good at making money.”)

Jeanna Shepard

While Gina continued to work the old-fashioned way and earn money the new-fashioned way, she started to think, what next? She wasn’t sure she wanted her own place, but knew she loved Nantucket, where she’d cooked for four summers. She went online to look at properties in Nantucket on a Cape and Islands site and wound up seeing a diner for sale.

That diner was the Art Cliff, and it wasn’t on Nantucket, which Gina found out in her first phone call to the owner. She’d never been to Martha’s Vineyard, and it was the cold-and-dreary dead of winter, but she decided to check it out anyway.

The poor Art Cliff. Since Art Silva and Cliff Luce — the original owners who moved the former Captain Brown Diner from Edgartown to Vineyard Haven in 1943 — had sold the business, the diner had suffered from decay and debt.

Even though the pipes had burst, leaving a foot of water in the diner when she first saw it, Gina was not deterred. She had a Lexan box of magazine clippings and pictures with her. “I had a vision for the diner. I knew what it could be, and I knew I could make it happen,” she said.

Jeanna Shepard

Gina signed on as a business partner with the existing owner, but within a year she bought him out and began the process of bringing a fresh look, great food and a fun vibe to the little place on Beach Road. (Oh yes, and she moved from Washington, D.C.) That was 2000.

Over the years, she’s added the food truck, a catering business and lots of volunteer time to support Island organizations like Camp Jabberwocky and The Boys and Girls Club. She’s refreshed the diner with new art and new equipment and new (but not too many new) menu items.

And she’s taken her job of honoring the history of the Art Cliff seriously. She made friends with many of the guys who were the original “round table” at the diner, the men who used to come and start the coffee at 5 a.m.

“Most of them have passed,” Gina told me, “but yesterday, I’m lying here in the living room and I hear this, ‘Hey, Hey!’ and it’s Joe Costa. He’s like 87 and he’s brought me this little bowl of kale soup with the foil cover, and he tells me he’s looking after the diner while I’m down. And I get goose bumps just thinking about it. I tell the girls, don’t you ever charge Joe for anything when he comes in. And guys like Joe, that’s one of the best parts of this.”

Jeanna Shepard

“But I have to tell you,” she segues abruptly, nearly knocking me off the overstuffed armchair I’m perched on. “I’m seriously considering selling the diner. I’ve been thinking about it on and off for years now, but I may finally be ready, which is really terrifying. The diner’s been like my baby for 17 years. But I’m tired. I feel like I could be doing a lot better, be open more, have the truck out five nights a week like I used to, do more catering.”

Gina’s health has suffered from 60, 70, and 90-hour weeks of physical work for so many years. After being sick a lot the last few years, she finally made time to get to the doctor for blood tests. They revealed both mono and thyroid problems.

“Somebody said to me (after I broke my ankle), why does all this stuff happen to you? And I said, it’s not happening to me, it’s happening for me. This is like my wake-up call that I can’t do it like I’ve always done it,” she said.

This January Gina saw an apartment for sale in Bronxville, N.Y., when she was visiting her Dad. It was right across from the train to the city, and she decided to buy it, thinking it might help push her toward whatever could be next. That could be travel, but more likely it means more involvement with a community nonprofit, where she can donate her time.

But to leave the diner, she’d need to be sure the next owner is the right fit.

“There’s so much history,” Gina reminded me. “It’s funny, but I never really felt like the diner was mine. I’ve always felt like I was taking care of it for someone else, keeping it going to pass along to the next caretaker.”