“In New York I pretty much live in diners – I order French Fries, Diet Coke floats and lots of coffee.”
When I went back to New York in November for the first time in over a decade, I spent some time reading up on the city’s things to do and found an incredible website by chance.
This site had a post on retro diners which I found particularly interesting. One of these happened to be located really close to one of the hotels we stayed at, so one morning we decided to have breakfast there. And that’s how my fascination with vintage NY started!
Across two trips (November and April) I read up on diners and classic NYC eating and attempted to visit as many as I could compatibly with having to work weekdays in our Midtown office.
Not sure why, but I feel these (disappearing) diners are something very specific to American culture and hold almost an exotic feel for me, memories of by-gone eras, with greasy counters, refilled coffee cups and all walks of life passing through their walls. Edward Hopper’s stunning painting Nighthawks is perhaps the most iconic depiction of such tradition.
Here is my list of diners, by no means exhaustive – there are still a few I hope to visit at some point, before they get closed down. I missed out on Market Diner, which closed earlier this year and sadly, the stunning Empire Diner is currently closed too.
210 10th Ave, Chelsea (review updated 2018)
This wonderful piece has reopened in 2018 but I can share memories from having dined here various times back in November 2016. The interior is magnificently original with stainless steel frame, a long counter with leather stools and booths and tables for larger parties.
Initially built in 1946, deco details on the walls and the windows are preserved particularly well. Bright in the early morning sunlight, and resplendent in the evening hours, the food was great too as the diner had been taken over by chef Amanda Freitag a couple of years earlier and therefore the quality on classics such as burgers and modern dishes such as smashed avocado, was of high standard.
After a period of closure, it reopened in 2018. We visited for dinner and really enjoyed it, the menu this time less classic and more varied (think southern fried chicken).
Judging by how packed it was when we walked past in 2019, the Empire Diner is here to stay.
Star on 18
128 10th Ave, Meatpacking
In truth this is not as vintage as the Empire, it is an old-school venue which has been here a fair amount of time and is still going strong. While it was relatively quiet over dinner and mid-week breakfast, it was heaving for Saturday brunch.
The food is decent, the portion size huge, the menu choice massive (with a Greek influence) and the prices very fair. It’s right across from the High Line and the service is friendly. It has the atmosphere of a solid, local eating joint and doesn’t disappoint.
33 Leonard St, TriBeCa
Perhaps the one that mostly reminded me on the Empire, this is another beautifully preserved stand alone diner of a strangely triangular shape not far from the Greenwich village. It’s on the elegant side of diners and has the usual, classic menu fare at decent prices in what is now a very trendy area, but surely wasn’t when this first opened.
Cup & Saucer Luncheonette
89 Canal St, Lower East Side
A short walk from Little Italy, this is a proper old fashioned diner. Outside it looks like it has not had a lick of paint in decades and probably hasn’t but has a welcoming feel to it, with seemingly period signboards and steel counter, and individual window seats looking out at Canal Street life, mainly now absorbed by Chinatown.
I had a freshly made, really good yogurt and fruit smoothie, unusual perhaps in such an environment but a welcome change from omelettes and toasts and the staff were very friendly
The more basic experience of all, this diner surely shows the signs of time. Old formica tables, a cheap and cheerful menu with average quality of food and particularly unfriendly staff, yet given its fantastic location (between the Greenwich village and Meatpacking) it’s definitely worth a look.
Photos of visiting celebrities adorn the walls and I love Mrs Marmite Lover’s description of its menus in her recent post: “the laminated menu, which was just the right kind of nuclear-age deliciousness”
Technically not a diner, yet it’s old and has been serving ‘the best pastrami’ since 1888 with original neon lights outside and an interior which hasn’t changed in years. Photos and stickers all over the walls, noisy crowds and an odd queue and order by tickets system. Given it was the location of a very famous scene in cult movie When Harry met Sally, it gets very busy with tourists.
I visited on a midweek lunchtime and the wait for a sandwich was feasible at about 10 minutes, yet the quality was fairly poor in my view (fresh but fatty pastrami, dry bread, tasteless cheese and boring pickles) and the price a rip off ($21.95 for a Reuben sandwich); it’s worth a look inside but not spending any more money.
Russ & Daughters
205 E Houston St, Lower East Side
Again, not a diner yet this establishment has been open for 102 years and counting and is next door to Katz’s. Do yourself a favour and eat their food instead. Clean venue, beautiful display of lox, salmon, fish dishes and spreads (the family were originally fish mongers) and cakes such as babka and rugelach, available to take away.
They recently opened a café proper around the corner and I wish I had had lunch here instead of over priced and indigestible Katz.
174 5th Ave, Flatiron
I had no idea this was located so near my hotel and managed to visit on my last morning. Blink and you’ll miss this classic diner right by Madison Square. Long, thin dining room with plenty of counter space and a good menu. I had a solo breakfast here and within two minutes of sitting down I struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to me talking bacon, New York diners, politics (Trump, Palin and Boris Johnson!) and travels.
This also effectively prevented me from taking more and better photos, not wanting to give away more of my life story. Great atmosphere, prices in line with the area and some vintage details such as the retro kettle and the wood panels behind the counter. Photos of regular celebrities of course, all over the walls.
We visited for lunch in 2018, and sat at table at the back. An omelette with fried potatoes and an ice tea were a decent grub, and better than your average cafe. A wonderful place.
1226 Lexington Ave, Upper East Side
Not far from Guggenheim Museum, this gracefully authentic local soda fountain and diner was perhaps my favourite one to visit beside Empire. We were here during a mid week lunchtime and it was not too busy but the ambiance was really relaxed, mixed clientele, old fashioned staff and the usual celebrity photos on the wall (we sat at the table where John Turturro and Woody Allen sat apparently).
Prices are a match for the area (Upper West) but still this place is definitely worth a stop.
44 Little W 12th St, East Village
Wedged right underneath the southern end of the High Line, this diner looks pretty ugly from the outside but take a peek outside and you will see how authentic and neat it actually is. Admittedly I did not have a chance to eat here in 2016 but stopped for a lemonade in 2018 and finally brunch in 2019. The food was sadly disappointing and quite bland, but the venue still makes for an interesting stop in a great part of the city.
518 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211, USA
We ventured to Brooklyn to visit this stunner of a diner, which is conveniently located right by the subway exit. Spacious, elegantly well preserved with friendly service and pretty decent food, we loved it.
I had an omelette once again, nearly choked to death in the process but enjoyed a lovely sunday lunch with my friends Sarah and Loredana, my usual NYC companions.
Download this list of diners in pdf format
More diners which I did not have time to go to but look worth a visit:
- Bel Aire Diner, Astoria (Queen’s)
- Tom’s Restaurant, Brooklyn
- Broadway Restaurant, Upper West Side
- The Donut Pub, 14th Street
- Odessa, Avenue A
- Pearl Diner, Wall St
- Pop’s Diner, Queens
Anyone else with suggestions please do add in comments! I am addicted to retro dining at the moment and might turn into Lana Del Rey (opening quote is hers).