By Peggy Ann Torney
After struggling to survive in the 1970s amid the growth in fast-food outlets, the humble diner is back in vogue. In Manhattan, diners are refashioning themselves as upscale eateries and hip venues to attract nightclubbers.
And they aren’t stinting on the quality of the food either, emphasizing fresh ingredients. One recent night at the Empire Diner on Tenth Avenue, R.E.M. roared from the jukebox. A serving of meatloaf, broccoli and homemade mashed potatoes sat before Gary Zemola.
“I was so surprised at how fresh the food was,” Zemola said. “It was fantastic.”
The Empire Diner and others of its kind are modern throwbacks to the first diner, run in 1872 by Walter Scott, who served hot meals from a horse-drawn wagon to late-night industrial workers in Providence, R.I.
In the early 1950’s there were about 6,000 diners in America, but that number slipped to 2,000 by the mid-1970’s as a fast-food craze swept the nation. But now diners are “creeping upward from 2,000 where it had stabilized for 25 years,” said Richard J.S. Gutman, author of “American Diner Then and Now” and director of the Culinary Archives & Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence.
Unlike other restaurants, diners began as prefabricated buildings that were built in factories and then moved. Although most diners are no longer prefabricated, many have retained what Zemola calls a “core feeling of warmth and comfort” that made them so popular in the 1950’s.
“The architecture and the friendly environment distinguish a diner from a generic family restaurant,” Gutman said.
Part of the design that makes diners unique is the counter, according to diner diehards. The counter “balances out the cool efficiency of the kitchen with the warm repose of the booths,” said Randy Garbin, author of “Diners of New England.” “Without a counter, it’s just another restaurant,” he said.
In New York City, diners like Chelsea Square and Diner 24 stay open all night to serve the nightlife crowd.
While the fare at Manhattan’s Empire Diner—fresh vegetables and $11 hamburgers overseen by a chef with French training—may be a far cry from what Walter Scott dished up, the Empire’s owners said they were committed to filling a social need as well as offering home cooking.
In the 1980’s, the Empire attracted late-night clubgoers. Now, families, tourists, artists and celebrities are more likely to settle into the stainless steel building.
Typically, diners are owned “by blue-collar Americans who have achieved the American dream,” Garbin said.
In the Empire’s case, the diner was recently purchased by Mitchell Woo, who has been its chef for 25 years, and Renate Gonzalez, the general manager. Prior to Woo and Gonzalez, the diner had only one set of owners since it was reopened in 1976.
“It is a great place to work and now to own,” Woo said. “It is an institution and it is good to be a part of it.”
The art deco railroad-car hangout embodies the traditions of home-cooked food with a fancy flair. “It is a diner in a tuxedo,” Woo said, with an atmosphere that reflects the city itself: “high energy and slightly over the top.”
Purists point out that the Empire caters to a specific crowd, rather than the come one, come all approach of typical diners, but others say it has been true to its roots, while also changing with the times to stay in business. The 77-year-old Empire had been abandoned for 20 years before its reopening.
“The Empire became an embodiment of a diner gone upscale,” Gutman added, with its $8.50 bacon, egg and cheese on a roll. On one hand it was the antithesis of what a diner stood for, and on the other hand it was an example of a successful diner done right, he said.
Indeed, places like the Empire and the Fog City Diner in San Francisco have maintained key aspects of diners from their heyday in the 1950’s while upgrading the food quality and boosting prices.
“[Diners] will continue to transform themselves, but will always be recognizable,” Gutman said. That is because “diners have a reputation of being cool, hip and retro.”
“Diners are here to stay,” he said.