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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Diner Be Aware of the Diner

My first apartment in New York City was in Chelsea, on 22nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. When my roommate read the ad, standing on the street at a pay phone with the Village Voice in hand, we had no idea what or where Chelsea was, and even less what "renov brnstn with fplc" meant.
At $299 per month for a renovated brownstone with a fireplace, 14-foot ceilings, and a skylit living room, what it really meant was that we were very lucky and had no idea of what we had. This was a beautiful, tree-lined street, lined with rowhouses and walkable to New York University.

The Empire Diner was around the corner, but I did not fancy diner food at the time, and it was not until last week that I actually stepped inside this diner and sat down for a meal.

The history of the "rail car" diner is a bit muddled. The origins of diners were rooted in the lunch wagon, but there were also railroad dining cars which were deactivated from rail service, parked along train stations, and used as diners. In time, diners were styled along the railcar lines, many using stainless steel and Art Deco elements.

One of the number of companies who manufactured these railcar diners was the Fodero Dining Car Company (1933-1981) of Newark, New Jersey, which built the Empire Diner. This diner is legendary, with its striking exterior, roof-mounted Empire State Building, its gleaming interior, and beautiful Deco clock. It has been used in numerous films, referenced in song, and frequented by a long list of celebrities: FDR, Charles Lindberg, Barbra Streisand, Al Pacino, Madonna, Will Smith, David Bowie, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Springsteen, et. al.

This place has been tres chic for decades and is typically packed, inside and out (it has sidewalk seating in warm weather).
Food and service reviews are all across the spectrum, and a reading of comments on a site such as will show very impassioned reviews with one- to five-star ratings. A friend and I visited on a weekday, mid-morning, and the place was virtually empty. I cannot speak of a typical experience here - they were overstaffed for two of us. The food is very pricey, and the breakfast food we ordered was basic. But the Empire Diner is worth a look at if you are in the area.

However, like any place whose reputation is larger than life, and particularly in the case of a place that bills itself as the "Hippest Diner on Earth," let the diner be aware of the diner :)

5 comments: said...

Beautiful picture!! Good job!!


Chuck Pefley said...

Clever title today. The ambiance and history are definitely worth at least a one-time visit. And you're so right ... at $299 / month, you definitely had a great deal!!

Leslie said...

Haven't made it to that diner yet! Did we really pay only $299...holy mackeral. Sure seemed like a lot back in 1971.

Anonymous said...

I used to live at 36th & 9th in the early 80s.
Paid $1000/mo. for a 2BR loft conversion and walked down to the diner quite often.
Amazed to know it's still there.
BUT, $299 in Chelsea????!!!!
When? In 1971 like Leslie says?
That's pretty amazing too.


m.fletcher said...

Great shot!