It's like losing an old friend.

Gates, a downtown restaurant synonymous with New Canaan and known since 1979 for its welcoming, family atmosphere, has been sold to a private restaurant group in the town and will close on Sunday, according to owner Billy Auer.

The new owner, Jay Luther, plans to keep the restaurant's name and reopen it with a new menu after an interior remodeling of the space between Main and Forest Street, said Auer, who has owned Gates with his business partner, Jeb Swift, since it opened.

On Tuesday afternoon, the restaurant was packed for lunch as Auer took on the role of ad-hoc maître'd accepting calls for reservations because employees had not shown up for work.

"It is emotional because the restaurant has been important to so many people," Auer said. "People tell me, `We met at Gates and got married.' People brought their children here, had graduation parties."

The change of hands was prompted, Auer said, by the desire of he and Swift to step away from day-to-day management of Gates.

"We're retiring. I want to sail and my partner wants to play golf," Auer said. "I have three other restaurants. But it was time to get away from day-to-day management of the restaurant and slow down."

Auer said he expects to maintain his interest in Tequila Mockingbird, a Mexican cantina that opened in 1993 next to Gates, which he co-owns with Paul Mock. Auer also said there will be no closure of the two Centro Ristorante & Bar restaurants he owns in Fairfield and Greenwich.

Auer said he announced the sale to the restaurant's staff Saturday because he wasn't sure the deal to sell it would go through.

"The problem with selling a restaurant is you can't break the news too far ahead of time because it gets too complicated," Auer said.

On Tuesday afternoon, many customers seemed to have learned the news while other regulars were taken by surprise.

"I heard the news and I came to say adieu," New Canaan resident and retired wine distributor Tom Skinner said upon greeting Auer.

Skinner, a 78-year-old who lives in the Silvermine area, said he came in to eat lunch one last time. While still active in his business, Skinner distributed alcohol to the restaurant.

"They are just good stable people to work with and be friends with and it is a nice place to come in and have lunch," Skinner said. "I always came here more for lunch than dinner."

Preston Murphy, 36, a Fairfield resident and 1998 New Canaan High School graduate, came for lunch after hearing the news Monday night. Murphy said he made a reservation to eat dinner at the restaurant Friday with his fiance.

"Everything here is great, but I particularly love the lobster bisque," Murphy said. "I never expected it to close."

On Monday night at the restaurant, Gretchen Bond and her brother, Christian Hummel, who spent their late adolescence in New Canaan but now live in California, were taken aback to find out Gates was closing the week they visited. Both said they were shocked to find some familiar landmarks like Gates, Cherry Street East, and Tequila Mockingbird were still in existence.

"We were surprised to find it open and now surprised to find it is closing," Hummel said. "It's like a dream."

Bond, who lives in California, warmly remembered eating at the restaurant with her then husband Steve Bond and her late former father-in-law, former First Selectman Dick Bond. "It was a wonderful feeling to walk in here and there would always be a table ready," she said.

Auer, along with Swift, opened Gates in 1979, using about $250,000 in seed money gathered from about a dozen private investors. The trademark black wrought iron gate on the Forest Street entrance was imported from Austria.

Auer said he believes Gates earned a loyal customer base because it filled a niche for great food and generous portions at reasonable prices.

"What people really like about Gates is good quality, good value for money, and atmosphere," Auer said. "Everything we do is reasonably priced in this day in age. I mean, where else can you get a salad with your entree?"

Patrick Clyan, a bartender at Gates since 2004, said he is grateful for the decade he worked for Auer and Swift, who he called great bosses.

"It has been a grand ride and great clientele," Clyan said. "Hopefully, something else will show up in the neighborhood. Jeb and Billy have been great guys to work for and it has been a grand run."

Luther could not be immediately reached for comment and Auer did not know when the new version of Gates would open.

Patty Murray, a waitress at Gates, said she was saddened by the news.

"We'd been hearing rumors for a month but it is a shock," Murray said. "I love working here and we have a great team. I hate that we're being broken up -- but change happens."

Murray said she hopes Luther takes good care of the spot.

"What we've heard is he owns a lot of bars and restaurants and he understands the demographic here," Murray said. "He won't do anything too crazy."