New York City’s classic diners survive
Iconic American diners were originally were built to resemble railroad dining cars. (Graham Crouch/LPI)
At 9 am at the Cup & Saucer diner, located somewhat incongruously in the middle of New York City’s bustling Chinatown, business is brisk. High school students order breakfast sandwiches to go at the cash register, while regulars sit on stools at the white countertop, digging into plates loaded with pancakes, eggs cooked every way, sausage and hash browns. Coffee cups are filled and refilled as a chef shouts orders to the line cooks: “Silver dollars, go ahead! Eggs over easy, go ahead!”
The Cup & Saucer (89 Canal St; 212-925-3298) dates back to the 1940s, but like many vintage diners around the city that are threatened with increasing rents and an unstable economy, its future is uncertain. Last year, the building that houses the Cup & Saucer was sold, momentarily threatening the diner’s ground floor location. “Looks like another five years at least,” said John Vasilopoulos hopefully, as he worked the register.
Staying true to the raison d’etre behind any iconic American diner – inexpensive, filling, no-frills comfort food, the Cup & Saucer serves breakfast specials from 6 am to 11 am daily for the unbeatably low price of $4.25. During lunch and dinner, customers peruse plastic-coated menus for classic greasy-spoon selections like hamburgers, French fries and club sandwiches stacked high with meat and iceberg lettuce.
The reality, however, is that in New York City, most diner food is not so cheap anymore. The term “diner” derives from the fact that these restaurants, popular not just in the Northeast but all across the United States, originally were built to resemble railroad dining cars. Though a few retain this style, such as the popular Carney’s in West Hollywood, California, nowadays diners tend to either be hole-in-the-wall luncheonettes or expansive, modern establishments with leather booths. Then there are the US’s faux “diner” chains like Denny’s and IHOP, which capture little of the spirit or flavour of the real thing.
According to the American Diner Museum in Lincoln, Rhode Island, the first diner was built in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1858, catering mostly to night workers. In that regard, things have not changed, as many diners are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can often find as many customers eating tuna melts (hot grilled cheese and tuna sandwiches) at 3 am as there are eating Monte Cristos (fried ham and cheese sandwiches sprinkled with powdered sugar) at 3 pm. Diners also play an important role during every US election cycle. Candidates from both parties invariably make appearances at eateries in states like Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, trying to prove that they can relate to the common folk by eating a burger and slurping down a milkshake.
In New York City, across all five boroughs, one can still find many examples of classic, old school diners that, while not always dirt-cheap, provide a satisfying, comforting culinary experience that is still less expensive than many other restaurants in this venerable gastronomic city. These are, however, becoming increasingly imperilled, as property owners choose to raise rents instead of renewing vintage diners’ leases. For example, the Palace Diner, in Flushing, Queens, closed its doors last winter after nearly 40 years of service, and Manhattan’s iconic Empire Diner ceased operations in 2010 after being priced out of its location. Establishments like these might have survived by raising their prices, but that would have likely driven customers away.
Landmark Diner opened in Manhattan’s SoHo neighbourhood in 1962. It operates seven days a week, from 6 am until 6 pm. The narrow space between the grill counter and rickety tables is a bit dingy, but regulars flock here all day long for breakfast and lunch specials, coffee and burgers, served at a breakneck pace. Do not expect anything fancy; Landmark offers strictly down and dirty (metaphorically speaking) diner food, including a wide variety of omelettes, tuna salad sandwiches and grilled cheese with sliced tomatoes.