YOUR GO-TO GUIDE FOR AUTHENTIC NEW YORK DINERS
Forget Michelin three-star restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Per Se—the diner is NYC’s most quintessential, classic temple of gastronomy (not that you can’t have both, reservations allowing). A part of the local and tri-state landscape for the better part of a century, and who knows how many hundreds of movies and TV shows, New York diners are as beloved for their vast menus of short order American and ethnic fare—Greek, Jewish, Italian—as they are for their fast-talking wait staff, egalitarian all-ages crowds, and partiality for iconic retro styling.
While much has been written about NYC diners as a dying breed in response to the many closures in recent years, our list of must-visit downtown diners, plus a destination-worthy eatery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, affirm there is more reason than ever to plant your backside in a vinyl seat and get eating. So, what’ll it be?
THE SKINNY: A West Chelsea fixture since 1976—you can spot it in Woody Allen’s Manhattan and on the cover of Tom Waits’s Asylum Years—Empire Diner got a reboot and “brightening up” 40 years later from Chef John DeLucie and the owners of Chelsea’s bustling modern comfort diner, Cafeteria (Empire had endured some closures and failed revivals prior to this 2016 incarnation, including a brief run headed up by Chopped judge Amanda Freitag in 2014). You won’t find “breakfast all day,” but DeLucie’s menu puts a contemporary, seasonal spin on American comfort food. “When stuff hits the market we try and get it as fresh as possible and not handle it too much,” he says. It has also attracted regulars like Iman, Quantico star Priyanka Chopra, nightclub impresario Amy Sacco, and a who’s who of Tony-winning Broadway stars. “It’s quite a scene, sometimes, but also very low-key,” DeLucie adds.
ORDER THIS: Double-patty Empire Special Blend Burger on brioche; Berkshire Pork Chop; hand-folded cavatelli pasta.
210 10th Ave, New York, NY 10011; T. (212) 335-2277
THE SKINNY: Known as a tried-and-tested Union Square fixture, the Coffee Shop NYC has also earned a reputation as a celeb and model hangout. Andwhile management is ultra discreet and refuses to drop names (and boy, we tried!), Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Naomi Watts, and Julianne Moore once allowed a photocall during a visit. The space operated as an old-school Greek diner named Nick’s until three models (including Carolyn Benitez, wife of famed music producer Jellybean) transformed it into a what it has today become. Coffee Shop’s menu represents “American with a Brazilian twist” featuring items such as addictively chewy, golf ball-sized Portuguese cheese bread pão de queijo, seasonal salads, and eggs benedict. Bonus: the attached juice and smoothie stand outside still serves up fresh blends at ’90s prices.
ORDER THIS: The Brazilian-inspired “arepa” Eggs Benedict with chorizo, spinach, and truffle hollandaise. Or anything with avocado.
9 Union Square W, New York, NY 10003; T. (212) 243-7969
THE SKINNY: A true holdout, Tribeca’s Square Diner has been around for almost a century, and every inch of its railroad car-like 650 square feet promises a trip back in time. A prime location for movies and television shows including Netflix’s Marvel series Daredevil, the Bollywood remake of Chef, and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” music video, “this year alone we appeared in Law & Order SVU twice, Quantico, Bull, and Ray Donovan,” says owner/manager Ted Karounos. Karounos’ family ran it since 1971, and he became sole proprietor in 2001. He says that the restaurant’s continued longevity can be attributed to its small size—with just 50 seats indoors and 30 on its sidewalk café, “developers aren’t that interested in our property”—and a from scratch approach in the kitchen. “All of our baked goods are made by my wife Anna including baklava, vanilla bean cheesecake, carrot cake, brownies, a deep dish apple pie, bourbon pecan pies, and lemon meringue,” says Karounos.
ORDER THIS: Corned beef hash; Cuban and pulled pork sandwiches.
33 Leonard St, New York, NY 10013; T. (212) 925-7188
THE SKINNY: La Bonbonniere is old school in about every way a NYC greasy spoon luncheonette/diner should be, from well-worn interiors to cheap prices (cash only, by the way). Despite its lack of glamour, this West Village neighborhood favorite has drawn high-profile breakfast, burger, and sandwich seekers over the years including Ethan Hawke, James Gandolfini, and Julia Stiles (check out the photos hanging on the walls, along with loads of seemingly random art).
ORDER THIS: Thick French Toast with bacon. Actually, anything with bacon.
28 8th Ave, New York, NY 10014; T. (212) 741-9266
THE SKINNY: Not to be confused with the cereal brand’s sugary Union Square café, this 45-year-old Brooklyn institution—you can’t miss its blue and shiny aluminum exterior—is a destination-worthy diner. Open 24 hours, and renovated with a retro-chic design in 2008, you’ll find an especially deep and impressive menu to choose from including live lobsters from the tank and all-day breakfast options. Bonus: a full bar (again, very unlike Manhattan’s cereal-themed café).
ORDER THIS: Anything fried; the unpretentious classic Eggs Benedict on an English muffin.
518 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211; T. (718) 782-4502
Words Lawrence Ferber