Travel bites – New York’s top 12 classic diners
“In New York I pretty much live in diners – I order French Fries, Diet Coke floats and lots of coffee.”
Updated May 2023
When I went back to New York in November 2015 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 ’16) 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. I visited again in 2019, then the pandemic struck and I paused my NY trips. Finally, in May 2022 and 2023 we went back for more!
Sadly, between COVID and change in people’s tastes, so many diners have closed. I have moved those I had been lucky enough to visit in a separate section at the end of the post, Gone but not forgotten. I fear more will move there with time, but for now, enjoy the post below with a few recent additions!
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 before I could visit, amongst others.
210 10th Ave, Chelsea (review updated 2018)
This wonderful piece reopened in 2018 as a more fancy eatery, 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. We walked past again in 2022, still wonderfully there, so fingers crossed we can finally visit one day!
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 when we visited in 2015, 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 in 2016 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 in my view.
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 also opened a café proper around the corner and I wish I had had lunch here instead of over priced and indigestible Katz.
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 (temporarily closed)
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.
This had been in my list and finally, 2022, it was time to visit. We headed to see la Boheme at the Met Opera so it was only a few stop north new the Columbia University. A residential and elegant area, this corner diner is gorgeous. The neon pink on blue signage and the bright dining area make it a very attractive venue. One side has counter and counter seats, the other has booths with leather seats. The doors have plenty of photos and autographed portraits of celebrities and famous actors.
The service was super friendly and fast and the menu is huge; it includes large salads (we tried a delicious greek) and omelettes (I had the feta and tomato) with chips but also ‘home made fries’ which are smashed roasties. Excellent diner, a must for Seinfeld fans and Susanne Vega’s (she used to study nearby and it’s here that she allegedly penned the lines ‘I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner’.
144 2nd Ave
More a restaurant than a diner, I had spotted Veselka on my walk towards GEM in 2018; of course since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this historic restaurant has become even more worthy of a visit if only for the wish most of us have to support Ukrainians. It opened in NYC in the 50s and when we visited, over lunch, was very busy.
The menu offers diners’ American classics (think burgers) but also a ton of Ukrainians specialties, which we tried: pierogi, latkes (delicious), beetroot dishes like borscht, and more. Friendly service and reasonable prices.
17 Mott St
So something a little different from the classic American diner again, and boy, Chinatown is full of history too. On a brilliant instagram account (@jamesandKarla) I discovered a few gems including Wo Hop, one of the oldest restaurants in the area. We popped in downstairs in the morning and saw a wonderfully retro dining room; at a table 3 elderly gentlemen were making dumplings ahead of the lunch service. We came back by dinner time, sat at one of their outdoor tables and enjoyed some proper tasty sezchuan dishes (albeit in disposable plastic) served by a brisk but friendly waiter.
More vintage places in Chinatown are Nom Wah Tea Parlour (Doyers St) known for dim sum (the queue can be long) and Mee Sun Cafe (Pell St) which sells rice dishes in a proper diner set up (everything is vintage from the water boiler to the cash register) and where the staff barely speak english, it doesn’t get more authentic than this. Fabulous find by my friend Sarah.
Bel Aire Diner, Astoria
In May 2023, as we spent a couple of nights in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, we realised we were 20m bus ride away from Bel Air Diner, so we made our way. The diner is very elegant and pretty large, really well maintained and attractive. Inside it’s bright and airy and has a humongous menu, with so much choice! Our server was super friendly and we had a good meal before visiting Roosevelt Island nearby.
More diners which I did not have time to go to but plan to go in the future:
- Waverly Diner, Chelsea
- Broadway Restaurant, Upper West Side
- The Donut Pub, 14th Street
- Pearl Diner, Wall St
- Pop’s Diner, Queens
- Remedy Diner, LES
- Manhattan Restaurant, Greenpoint
- Court Square Diner, Brooklyn
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).
Gone but not forgotten
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.
Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop
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.