Five boroughs, five diners, five uncertain futures
Grecian omelette. Belgian waffle. Two eggs over hard. Short stack with bacon, crisp. Disco fries.
Disco fries?! Yes, disco fries. In New York, brown gravy and Provolone heaped on waffle-cut potatoes is a birthright, day or night. Gotham’s diners have always catered to benevolently schizophrenic appetites; prepping the line for dinner service might happen at 10 a.m., when an order for scrod or souvlaki rolls in amid the tickets for pancakes and homefries. Even if they aren’t always open 24/7, New York’s diners are always on.
Many, however, are shutting off. Just a handful of standalone railcar diners survive in the five boroughs. Less architecturally distinctive but no less exceptional establishments are being forced to close, whether by condo-crazed developers, deterioration of client bases, ever-rising food and labor costs, or a combination of these factors.
So, what is the temperature of the New York diner? How is it coping with gentrification? Have customers’ evolving palates dragged menus, kicking and screaming, into a realm of avocado toasts and müesli? And who orders a cottage cheese cup, anyway? I racked up subway fares and bridge tolls to visit five diners—one in each borough—to observe, question, and eat a lot of pancakes.
Here’s what I found.
Manhattan: Pearl Diner
Even if you can navigate the Financial District’s labyrinthine lanes like a bike messenger, rolling up to the Pearl still feels like an act of discovery. It’s one of Lower Manhattan’s most incongruous, anachronistic structures, a single-car diner hemmed in by skyscrapers. Yet it manages to find a balance, however precarious.
One late Friday afternoon, a family of Dutch tourists polishes off pancakes (blueberry, chocolate chip, banana) and snaps pictures of the booth where Robert Pattinson brooded in 2010’s Remember Me. A heavily pomaded young trader in designer loafers slices his burger, eats one half, and leaves the remainder. Coffee orders are accompanied by a tiny, hand-poured glass of milk, not the typical metal pitcher or disposable creamer cups.
“This place is… it’s...”
“A dinosaur?” says the cashier.
The diner used to be around the block on Maiden Lane. “It’s sitting on rails, but it’s not a railcar,” he explains.
The Pearl was nearly washed out in October 2012, when Superstorm Sandy surged hard into the Financial District. It reopened after four months. A three-pancake order, all of $6.25, may be the most honest deal in the neighborhood, and certainly among the tastiest.
212 Pearl St., (212) 344-6620
Brooklyn: The Floridian Diner
In the New York real estate trade, “transitioning” is a tidy euphemism ascribed to gentrifying neighborhoods. Mill Basin, perched at a flotsam-strewn inlet of Jamaica Bay, skipped the “-ing” and went straight to “-ed.” Overnight, the tiny peninsula was peppered with multimillion-dollar McMansions, built largely by self-made entrepreneurs from the former Soviet Union. Finishing breakfast one Tuesday morning at the Floridian Diner, one of two Russian contractors tells his waitress, in central-casting Brooklynese, “Dhank you, honey.”
The Floridian charges $5.25 for one egg cooked any style, or $5.95 for two. Value—or sometimes just the perception thereof—is a critical ingredient to a diner meal, something keenly understood by Steve Zaharikis, the Floridian’s owner for the past 35 years. The diner evokes its namesake with seafoam-blue vinyl seat upholstery and palm-frond motifs, but this isn’t winking, self-aware Brooklyn kitsch. It’s the real thing, tacky and resplendent.
Zaharikis says that the sea of wealth that has poured into the area doesn’t wash up often on the Floridian’s shores, a gap he attributes to the changing small-business environment of Mill Basin.
“Around here, there used to be the bars, but then they closed,” he says. “No more bowling alleys, no movie theaters, and these were all businesses that had people who’d come to eat here.”
That archipelago of interdependent businesses is gone. Zaharikis speaks wistfully of having more competition for customers’ dollar. “Even though there were a lot more diners back then, everyone did better,” he says. “It meant there was a good market for what you were doing. You’d think it would be the opposite, but it isn’t. The business just dissipates.
“But breakfast is still excellent on the weekends,” he says. “People will still treat themselves.”
2301 Flatbush Ave., (718) 377-1895
Queens: Court Square Diner
Once a desolate, foreboding patch of taxi depots, chop shops, and the occasional artist’s studio, this crossroads of Long Island City has been thoroughly “discovered,” with gleaming condominiums soaring above the 7 train’s elevated track and the glinting, single-story railcar diner below. The 24-hour Court Square Diner credits its survival during LIC’s dark days to the patronage of insomniac artists. The opening of PS1’s permanent home in 1976, an exhibition space for contemporary artists that would later be annexed by the Museum of Modern Art, ensured a steady stream. The success of PS1 and subsequent gentrification of the neighborhood have clearly benefited the 70-year-old Court Square Diner.
“After the parties at the museum? Forget about it. Very busy,” a breakfast-shift server says. PS1’s Warm Up party series, held at the museum’s central courtyard during summer months, ensures a weekly stream of hungry clubber-aesthetes. There’s also a level of care evident here, even on a sparsely filled weekday morning. A server delicately stirs a hot chocolate, careful to avoid any saucer dribbles. The place is spotless, owing to a recent renovation that brought new fixtures and bar mirrors etched with architectural icons of the neighborhood, like the Queensboro Bridge and Silvercup Studios, a popular film and television production complex. Even the drop-ceiling tiles have no stains.
There’s soy and almond milk in the refrigerator case. There’s an egg-white omelette. But despite these cursory nods to the neighborhood’s evolving tastes, the diner’s draw remains rib-sticking staples at fair prices, with the 7 train clattering overhead.
45-30 23rd St., (718) 392-1222
Staten Island: Andrew’s Diner
“Where else can you roll up in your pajamas, eat a three-egg omelette, then go back to bed?” Andrew Plaitis presides over the least diner-like diner in our survey. Andrew’s is located in a strip mall south of the Gateway National Seashore park entrance. There is very little chrome inside, no revolving dessert case, and not a whiff of Manhattan. Though the menu may seem to follow the diner script, going off-book can yield gems.
“Here, we specialize in fish, but you wouldn’t know that,” Plaitis says. An octopus tattoo peeks out from under his shirt sleeve. “Who would come into a diner and expect to get a fantastic piece of fish?” Restaurants like this, which Plaitis’s father, also named Andrew, opened in 1999, can suffer from a bit of an ambition trap.
“If a good steak costs me $15 and I’m selling it for $25, I’m not making money on that steak,” Plaitis says. “But you can’t go charging people $40. This isn’t Manhattan.”
Breakfast, though, is not just an Andrew’s specialty but a margin maker, thanks largely to the scratch-baking done every morning in the diner’s basement. “If I ordered from a bakery, I’d have to pay $1,500 to fill this case just once,” Plaitis says, pointing to a counter case, largely vacated of its morning pastries, cakes and muffins. There’s a frenzy when apple cheese puffs emerge from downstairs. “And everybody comes back for our spinach pie,” Plaitis adds.
The booths are filled, the servers are greeting patrons by name. Andrew’s is the proverbial pillar of its community. So what might it be serving in, say, 2035? “Nothing,” Plaitis says. “I think diners will go away, just like most small businesses. Costs will just keep rising.”
4610 Hylan Blvd., (718) 948-8544
The Bronx: Royal Coach Diner
At a glance, it’s not so different from any standalone diner you’d spot heading out of the city toward Westchester County. Chrome trim, blue panels, cantilevered plate-glass windows, a big neon sign. But the aromas inside the Royal Coach Diner betray an uncommon story. “I just bought it a month ago,” says Angel Almonte. He, along with his partners, recognized what many ill-fated diners have not. “You’ve got to keep with the times, and with your neighborhood, in order to stay above water.”
To that end, Almonte and his team have introduced a number of Latin dishes to the menu; on the morning I visited, the first smell that teased my nostrils was of peppery chorizo. “We have another place, in Brooklyn, the Lindenwood Diner in East New York, and the demographic there is basically the same here,” he says. “We’ve introduced a lot of the Latin specials, the bacalaítos [codfish fritters], the empanadas, and people are loving it. They’re appreciating the change.”
The Royal Coach doesn’t shy from glorifying the simple stuff. Take the seafood omelet, served with plump scallops and baby shrimp. Want sweet plantains (maduros) or fried green ones (tostones) rather than the typical home fries? They can do that.
“Diners are becoming extinct,” Almonte says. “You have to adapt.”
3260 Boston Rd., (718) 653-1716
Jonathan Schultz scribbles about cars, food, product design and travel from his home in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.