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
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.
Neil’s Coffee Shop (961 Lexington Avenue; 212-628-7474)
is another traditional establishment located on the Upper East Side of
Manhattan, not far from museums like the Whitney
and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This diner exists in various shades of brown – tan booths, beige walls and
light brown chairs. Headshots of celebrity patrons hang on a wall above the
front dining room, including Liza Minnelli, George Stephanopoulos and Patrick
Stewart. Neil’s opened in the 1950s, but Chris Kaloudis and his family have run
the joint since 1980. “Have you looked at our prices?” he laughed when asked
how business has fared as the US economy struggles. “The recession has
definitely affected us,” he said. While a coffee and slice of cherry pie will
set you back only $5, prices have risen over the past few years as tourism has
declined and customers have been scarce. Still, Neil’s offers satisfying and
sometimes greasy diner food that costs significantly less than many other Upper
East Side restaurants.
In Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighbourhood, Tom’s
Restaurant (782 Washington Avenue; 718-636-9738) has offered a quintessential
diner experience since 1936. The egg creams (soda water mixed with chocolate or
vanilla syrup and milk) and cherry-lime rickeys (lime juice and maraschino
cherries mixed with lemon-lime soda) are not to be missed here. On weekend
mornings, Tom’s is usually swarmed with customers hungry for brunch and there
is often a wait, thanks to the enormous amount of breakfast dishes they have on
the menu – more than 15 different types of pancakes (including sweet potato)
and as many omelettes to match. In the mood for something savoury? Try the crab
cakes or the excellent tuna melt, with fresh tomatoes and perfectly crisp fries
– two dishes that go above and beyond the average diner fare. The interior
design is a bit eccentric; Christmas lights cover the walls and a soundtrack of
old-timey jazz plays as you eat.
There are, of course, classic diner experiences to be
had in all corners of New York City. There’s another Tom’s Restaurant on the Upper West
Side of Manhattan, which has been around since the 1940s, and was made famous
by the Suzanne Vega song “Tom’s Diner” and as the exterior shots of Monk’s
Diner on the TV show Seinfeld. Chelsea Square Restaurant (368 West 23rd
Street; 212-691-5400) lies in the heart of Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood and
features many Greek dishes among the usual diner standbys.
Kellogg’s Diner (518 Metropolitan Avenue; 718-782-4502)
in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighbourhood is another classic eatery, frequented
by the young and fashionable residents who live in the area. A bit farther out,
in Maspeth, Queens, the Clinton Diner and Bar (5626 Maspeth Avenue;
718-894-3475) has been around since 1935 and was prominently featured in the
movie Goodfellas. A frequent stop for truck drivers, the Clinton Diner retains
its retro 1950s look, with blue panelling along the outer wall and a jagged, blue
structure jutting out from the rooftop.
In the Bronx, Castle Hill Diner (1506 Bronxdale Avenue;
718-828-3993) serves an eggs Benedict (poached eggs on an English muffin
covered with Hollandaise sauce) that customers rave about in online reviews.
Staten Island has its fair share of diners as well, including the Annadale
Diner (813 Annadale Road; 718-984-3200), which features a full bar as well as
dinner classics like roast chicken and broiled steaks.
It seems in every borough and neighbourhood of New
York City, a grilled cheese, Western omelette, Greek salad and milkshake are
just around the corner. Slide into a leather booth or sidle up to a lunch
counter to enjoy an unpretentious meal while you can, because the classic diner
may not be around for much longer.