Much has been written over the past several years about the extinction of what was once a city staple: the greasy-spoon diners and unassuming luncheonettes of yore. It’s true. So many of the idiosyncratic places that used to form the fabric of New York City have been replaced with more stylish, homogeneous versions of themselves. The NYC diner isn’t completely dead, but its heyday has seemingly come and gone.
Recent closures include Chinatown’s nearly 70-year-old The Cup and Saucer, the Lyric Diner in Gramercy, the 40-year-old Del Rio in Brooklyn, the Village’s Joe Jr., the 53-year-old Market Diner in Hell’s Kitchen and, of course, the much maligned closure of Broadway’s 34-year-old Cafe Edison, an absolute institution in the heart of the Theater District.
Diners have been upended for a variety of reasons, usually some combination of lower receipts, higher rent, and competition from ubiquitous chain eateries. Those factors, plus the reality that a new generation of college-educated professionals is proving reluctant to run family businesses that involve long, hard hours and slim margins, are converging in what has felt like a massive diner die-off.
It’s no wonder that city staples have been replaced by glossy alternatives like Pret a Manger and Le Pain Quotidien. In fact, a recent Crain’s article said that while the city had over 1,000 diners and coffee shops 20 years ago, today that number has been whittled down to fewer than 400.
And, while many New Yorkers are lamenting the loss of their favorite spots for affordable comfort food, overall, the population’s tastes have changed. Some diners have struggled to keep pace by switching to upscale ingredients or replacing meat-heavy dishes with vegan and vegetarian options. Champ’s Diner in Brooklyn specializes in vegan fare. The Empire Diner in Chelsea offers upmarket menu items like tuna “poke” bowls, beef carpaccio and antibiotic-free chicken. Some might argue that menu items in the $30-range go against the spirit of the diner, while others are thankful for the cozy, retro atmosphere and the ingenuity.
Thankfully, there are still some old-time diners that grace our great city. More of them tend to be located in the outer boroughs rather than Manhattan, but there are diners to be found in either case. Favorites include the appropriately named Manhattan Diner, Broadway Restaurant, Comfort Diner, Bel Aire Diner, and the Neptune Diner.
For most of us, the days of walking a few blocks to get to our neighborhood diner, a place chock-full of friendly and familiar faces, may be over. But that doesn’t mean that the experience is lost entirely. If we’re willing to travel a little farther and perhaps endure a little anonymity, we can still bask in the warmth and comfort of eating scrambled eggs on a vinyl seat, surrounded by chrome and Formica.
Hopefully, the high-profile closures have generated enough interest to convince a large customer base to patronize our remaining local treasures. Perhaps NYC’s remaining diners can survive against the odds, pouring coffee and grilling burgers in perpetuity.