Diners' charm

An exploration of the streets of New York, looking for these 100% american vintage places

07-05-2016
by Federica Carr
Il Tom's Restaurant è una vera icona di New Y

Il Tom's Restaurant è una vera icona di New York. Non solo dà il titolo a una canzone del 1987 di Suzanne Vega (che cambiò leggermente il nome in Tom's Diner). Ma è stato anche per diversi anni uno dei luoghi in cui si svolgeva la popolarissima sit-com Seinfeld, tra le più seguite nella storia della tv americana

“I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner, I am waiting at the counter for the man to pour the coffee” crooned Suzanne Vega a few years ago, underlining a custom that in the US is repeated, unchanged, every day. A long counter, a little greasy perhaps, surrounded by leather stools, ketchup bottles, customers lost in their thoughts; neon signage, long street facing windows, formica tables and cups of coffee served with stacked up blueberry pancakes.

Iconic scenes, now part of collective imagination thanks to movies, books and works of art (who can’t remember the immense Nighthawks by Hopper?), diners are an essential part of American culture. Once upon a time, they represented modernity and the birth of the fast, take away, food. Slowly, they turned into a piece of memorabilia, embedded in the social and economic texture of cities and suburbia. For Americans, they represent familiarity. Like the café on the corner for Italians, diners are a place where one goes for a quick, comforting meal.

Empire Diner

Empire Diner

For us, they are a major part of the American myth, full of history and stories. Despite the origins dating back to the 1800s and horse and carts, it’s only in the XX century that the diner really took its current shape. In the whole USA there are many still open and untouched. Even in the ever changing New York, some of these by-gone era vestiges are still standing, firmly set in the habits that locals don’t seem to want to let go of reassuring. A coffee and a fried egg at any time of the day and night have a reassuring feel, the safety in the routine gestures. We searched Manhattan to find these remaining pages of the American food history, before progress and globalisation take them away for good. 

We managed to eat at the splendid Empire Diner, and authentic 1946 Fodero Dining Car in the West Village. The shining steel, the art deco details and a menu revamped by chef Amanda Freitag had made this diner the perfect bridge between tradition vintage and the XXI century. Apart from omelettes and burgers, you’d be able to order avocado toast and granola. Sadly it’s currently closed, waiting for better times. The nearby landmark Market Diner in Hell’s Kitchen has closed for good earlier this year to make room for another anonymous sky scraper. 

Lexington Candy Shop

Lexington Candy Shop

In the residential side of the Manhattan, to the east of Central park, the Lexington Candy Shop has been on site for over 40 years, a soda fountain managed by staff that has probably been here since day one. Black and white photos on the walls, with relaxing atmosphere and great character. On the opposite side, there’s the Broadway Restaurant, a local deli shop that still survives, a central green formica counter and hand written giant menu behind; not far, Susanne Vega’s Tom’s Restaurant continues to serve its coffee to customers. 

Further south, near Wall St, is Pearl Diner, not as pretty as others (was built in the 60s) but recently location of the movie Remember Me with Robert Pattinson; a short walk away, another elegant and outstanding venue: the Square Diner (which is oddly triangular). This diner, like the Empire, is in stainless steel, with blue panels and authentic decor (it dates back to 1945). On Canal Street, towards Chinatown, is the small and less up kept Cup & Saucer, with period signage (1940), plastic menus, friendly staff and, strange for a diner, delicious fresh fruit smoothies.

Cup & Saucer

Cup & Saucer

Similarly old fashioned and characteristic but with mediocre quality and grumpy staff is La Bonbonniere, strategically located between the Greenwich Village and Meatpacking, loved by movie stars (Seymour Hoffman was a regular) and always full thanks for the cheap prices and the genuine ambience. 

Diners are everywhere; it just takes a little effort sometimes to spot them hidden by big brands and chains. For example, right across from the famous Flatiron, is Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, in business since 1929. We walked past many times before noticing it. Inside, the usual long counter, the pungent smell of eggs and bacon, photos of their celebrity fans on the walls and an assorted customer base. As soon as we sat down, even before ordering we had struck up a conversation with the gentleman next to us, who comes here every Saturday. We talked about politics, the Midwest, Trump and Palin. It doesn’t get more authentic than this.