Remember when you could order a stack of flapjacks for less than a buck from a waitress in a beehive hairdo? Even if the memory of the “good old days” comes more from watching reruns of Alice than personal experience, it’s a compelling one. Sure, prices have gone up and the hair has gone down, but you can still find vintage diners across New York City dishing up plates piled high with flapjacks and eggs, serving bottomless cups of coffee and, yes, even egg creams. Here are the eight New York City diners you can’t miss.
The story of the Empire Diner in Chelsea is, in many ways, the story of New York in transition. As the neighborhood has evolved, from rough-and-tumble westside to gay epicenter to art capital, so has the Empire Diner, and its clientele. The iconic Empire was originally built in 1946, and then it was gussied up and reopened in 1976 as an homage to the glamorous 1940s — set in a shiny Art Deco train car outfitted with vinyl booths, gleaming chrome, blacktop tables and a pianist tinkling the ivories. The Empire pulled in a crowd at all hours, but it really came into its own at 3am, when the diner was a microcosm of the city: club kids, neighborhood locals, night-shift workers, drag queens, tourists. The food seemed almost an afterthought, until you started eating: the menu was excellent, skewing upscale retro, from steak sandwiches to pigs in a blanket. And, now it’s even more so: After closing in 2010, the diner made its much anticipated debut in January 2014 under chef Amanda Freitag — lately of Food Network fame — with a menu that could be called “comfort foodie.” Diner classics have been creatively modernized; it’s not just matzoh ball soup, but matzoh ball marrow soup, made with bone marrow and root vegetables. The loaded potatoes are topped with foie gras and jalapeño, and the juicy burger is on a brioche bun. Order up: Seafood makes an appearance in Freitag’s new menu. Try the superb trout almondine, and get a milkshake for old time’s sake. 210 10th Ave., 212-596-7523, empire-diner.com
Come to this East Village classic for the pierogis, and leave with them, too. Once you’ve wolfed down a meal at the circa 1980 restaurant, order takeaway pierogis for later — it’s what everyone does. Narrow and utilitarian, this Ukrainian diner excels at its homeland’s traditional favorites: pierogis, stuffed cabbage and potato pancakes. The no-nonsense cooks also do a great blend of classic diner and Eastern European such as the kielbasa omelet, which goes well with a side of buckwheat kasha. And if the soup of the day is borscht, which it usually is on Friday, don’t hesitate. Sadly, Stage Restaurant is on the endangered list — the building was sold to a management company in 2013 — so go before it becomes another victim of vanishing New York. Order up: All the pierogis are good, but especially the ricotta. And when they ask if you want grilled onions with your pierogis, say yes, yes, yes. 128 Second Ave., 212-473-8614
You can almost hear the funky bass, pops and hiss from the Seinfeld theme music when you walk in the door. All around you, conversations are going something like this: “Remember when George ordered the ‘big salad’ here for Elaine? So funny.” Yes, Tom’s Restaurant is the Tom’s Restaurant — the stand-in for the fictional Monk’s Cafe on Seinfeld, where the gang gathered to eat. If that’s not enough, Suzanne Vega also crooned about the place in her song “Tom’s Diner.” But the diner didn’t need a TV show or hit song to keep its place on the diner circuit. Tom’s is legitimately vintage: It has been in the same Greek family since the 1940s. The name comes from Thanasi (Thomas), the first Greek immigrant owner. The exhaustive menu is equally old-school, with everything from an egg and bacon sandwich to Western omelets with a side of corned beef hash to fried shrimp in a basket. Like most things on TV, the diner seems much smaller in real-life (though note that the Seinfeld interiors were shot in Hollywood), but it still has all the diner elements — vinyl booths, potted plants and seen-it-all waitresses. Order up: Do the Columbia student rite of passage, and get a milkshake and gravy fries at 3am in the morning. Oh, and also muffin tops (Seinfeld joke alert). 2880 Broadway, 212-864-6137, tomsrestaurant.net
In the West Village, where a cupcake can cost upwards of $8 and a drink is twice that, La Bonbonniere — cheap and irony-free — shimmers like a mirage. Outside it’s fronted by a rudimentary black and white sign; inside there’s a chipped formica counter, wobbly tables and dorm-room-style walls plastered with grinning, signed celebrity headshots (Ethan Hawke among them). In short, La Bonbonniere looks and feels the opposite of its precious French name. Instead, the food is exactly what you want from a diner: warm and reliable, like a favorite pair of socks. Fluffy pancakes, perfectly greasy onion rings, the “steak special” on toasted bread and omelets that come every which way, including with salami, feta cheese, Hebrew National beef franks, broccoli, bacon, asparagus, olives and plantain (yes, plantain). Order up: The syrup-soaked challah French toast is legendary, especially for hangovers. Also, to satisfy your curiosity, try the potato chip omelet. 28 Eighth Ave., 212-741-9266
If Queens is the land of Greek diners, then Astoria is its capital. Though many chrome wonders have disappeared, there are several holdouts, chief among them the Bel-Aire Diner, which dates back to 1965. Mirrored walls and flashes of neon nurture ’60s nostalgia, as does the swivel-stool counter, topped with the holy trinity of diner condiments — ketchup, mustard and those glass sugar dispensers with a spout. The menu reads longer than the Odyssey and crisscrosses the globe, with Greek here, Mexican there, and all of it threaded through with Americana. There’s stuffed grape leaves and an Athenian burger on pita bread, as well as pulled-pork quesadillas, huevos rancheros, fluffy pancake and two eggs over easy. Order up: When in Astoria … Go for the Greek dishes, like the spinach pie bubbling with feta cheese. 31-91 21st St., Queens, 718-721-3160, belaireastoria.com
No, there’s no connection between this Tom’s Restaurant and the other Tom’s Restaurant. The Seinfeld/Suzanne Vega one is in Morningside Heights, while this one is in Prospect Heights, where it’s been since the 1930s. The comfortably cluttered diner may look like a tsotchke-crammed grandma’s house strung up with blinking holiday lights, but it stands apart for its service. There’s often a line, but the waitstaff brings out goodies (orange slices, cookies) to help the time go by. The menu is straightforward — fat omelets, burgers, pancakes — but with plenty of special touches, like the flavored butters, which change seasonally, from pumpkin to strawberry-banana. Order up: You can’t go wrong with any of the pancakes, but you must try the lemon ricotta: soliloquies have been written. 782 Washington Ave., Brooklyn, 718-636-9738
Cup & Saucer Luncheonette
Just beyond Canal Street’s Hello Kitty dolls, I Heart NY magnets and $5 foot massages is Cup & Saucer Luncheonette, with a name right out of the “Honey-I’m-home” 1950s. This quintessential short-order joint is the model of efficiency. Sit at the counter, order from the menu overhead and the food arrives, almost suspiciously fast. Fill up on hefty omelets, grilled cheese and bacon and sizeable breakfast sandwiches. While generally ignored, there is also a throwback “diet” section, with a dish called the Slenderella, consisting of cottage cheese and boiled eggs. Yum? Order up: The fish sandwich — flaky, oil-kissed, perfect. Also, note that they throw in a free glazed donut with delivery. 89 Canal St., 212-925-3298
The Bronx? Yes, thonks. As long as it includes a visit to this Riverdale favorite, which gamely works its roadside perch with a 24-hour neon-glow and the promise of breakfast all day. Dating back to 1968, the diner has survived, well, pretty much everything, from the societal move towards health-conscious eating (their salami and eggs are still as satisfyingly fatty as ever) to a devastating fire in 2010, after which the diner was rebuilt. It’s also a darling in the press. The Village Voice often includes it in its recommended list of NYC diners, citing the “stupefyingly large menu” and “above-average renditions” of classic diner fare. Where to start? Try the roast beef sandwich or the farmer’s omelet swollen with bacon, sausage and ham, and a big ole wedge of Boston cream pie. Order up: Tibbett Diner is justly famous for its steaming chicken potpie, which will cure anything that ails you. 3033 Tibbett Ave., Bronx, 718-540-8893, tibbettdiner.com
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