A visit to greasy spoon heaven

By Jeremy Glass
Updated July 06, 2018
Credit: Photo by Mark Mainz via Getty Images

“New York City isn’t like it used to be.” No matter if someone was born in the city or moved here in 2015, they’ll eventually say something like that. The city is never not changing, sometimes for the good, but very often, especially lately, for the not so good. Along with the disappearance of many of New York’s finest eccentric characters who are being priced out is the loss of the city’s inexpensive restaurants: greasy spoon diners, de facto supper clubs, and bars that would keep the alcohol flowing for cheap. For nostalgia’s sake, here are ten of the finest breakfast establishments that New York was known for back in the day.

The Cup & Saucer (Closed 2017)

Straddling the line between Lower East Side and Soho, The Cup & Saucer was everything you wanted in a greasy spoon. Selling straightforward diner staples like eggs, toast, sausage, and pancakes in a space barely bigger than a Manhattan apartment, The Cup & Saucer was one of the last great old-school NYC diners.

Riviera Cafe & Sports Bar (Closed 2017)

It wasn’t perfect, but it worked. Located “in the wedge of land between 7th Avenue and West 4th and West 10th Streets,” Riviera Cafe & Sports Bar served up everything angry Yankees fans wanted: robust breakfast platters, chicken fingers, chilli that was reportedly “a little too sweet,” and unlimited mimosas for a reasonable price. Originally opened in 1969, Riviera Cafe was a slice of historic Greenwich Village that claimed its spot before rents soared. People came for the ambiance along with the food. It was a place where one could enjoy yelling at the TV with their dearest friends.

Back Forty West (Closed 2016)

Back Forty West never had a chance to experience the fame of appearing in a Woody Allen movie or playing host to a gaggle of misfit writers, but for those who knew it best, this little breakfast, lunch, and dinner spot was welcome oasis in a part of town where food giants like Balthazar and Delicatessen catered only to the upper class. Plus, these guys had the best coffee in Manhattan.

University Place Restaurant (Closed 2012)

To fully understand the impact of the closure of this little coffee shop, allow me to quote the poignant and visceral Yelp review by a user known as Mae W.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, this coffee shop was run by a Greek man named Teddy, so all of us locals called the place ‘Teddy's.’ In those days, there was no sign but it was owner operated, prices were fair, Greek standards were served, and everything was fresh… There were lots of good memories here at 101 University Place and that is why the neighborhood continued to support this familiar low-key diner. All the tourists and outsiders and transients will never know what University Place was like during the 1970s when The Albert Hotel was an SRO (single room occupancy) for drug addicts, prostitutes, pimps, and thugs…”

Cheyenne Diner (Closed 2008)

Cheyenne Diner stood for nearly 70 years on the corner of Ninth Ave. and West 33rd St. With walls cluttered with Native American artifacts, it was a run-of-the-mill breakfast spot you could stop by after a late night out. "I remember when Jerry Lewis came in with his daughter and ordered an egg cream,” owner George Papas told theDaily News. "He liked the way we made it. He sent me a nice note afterward." Like many of the diners of yesteryear, Cheyenne lost its lease and simply couldn’t afford to stay open.

Chelsea Gallery Diner (Closed 2012)

For 30 years, the Chelsea Gallery Diner served greasy spoon fare that anyone—regardless of sobriety—could enjoy. The writer Jeremiah Moss captured the vibe of the restaurant quite perfectly, writing, “trekkers from the New York City Star Trek meet-up, gay bears and their admirers getting together, transgender folks mixing and mingling after a support group, or sober gays and lesbians coming in for fellowship after their 12-step meetings."

Moondance Diner (Closed 2007)

You may have had your first glimpse of Moondance Diner from an old episode of Friends or Sex and the City, but this Soho spot was the real deal. Originally opened in 1933 under the name Holland Tunnel Diner, this miniscule breakfast/lunch/dinner spot could only hold around 34 people. Moondance Diner was a testament to the magic of old New York, until it closed in 2007. However, the story didn’t end there—in mid-2017, the entire building was put on the back of a semi-trailer truck and moved to Wyoming, where it stood until it caved in during the winter of 2018. What a legacy.

Ratner’s (2005)

Legend has it that owners Jacob Harmatz and Alex Ratner flipped a coin to decide whose name this Jewish dairy deli was going to be named after. Opened in 1905, Ratner’s was where hungry Jews and gentiles came for cheese blintzes, potato pancakes, hot onion rolls, and split-pea soup. Since it operated under Kosher law, many of the patrons leaving Katz's Deli could stop by Ratner’s for a dairy-based treat.

Fresh Pond Diner (Closed 2003)

Nestled in the heart of Ridgewood, Queens, Fresh Pond Diner was a greasy spoon combined with an old-school German kitchen, and for many patrons it felt like home. Selling typical breakfast staples along with “endless refills of coffee in plain white mugs,” Queens’ senior citizens saw this diner as more of a social club. They would come here to eat breakfast, chat with their buddies, and maybe stick around long enough to order their special sauerbraten.

Café Nicholson (Closed 1999)

Originally opened in 1948, this Midtown cafe became a gathering place for artists, writers, activists, and the “cultural elite.” While owner Johnny Nicholson originally planned on the his namesake serving only the finest coffee and pastries, it was his friend Edna Lewis who convinced Nicholson to offer a full menu. The cafe was frequented by men along the likes of Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Donald Windham, and a “parrot named Lolita [who] screamed ‘Hello’ and ‘I’m a parrot.’”