A veteran of more television and film appearances than most actors, the Empire Diner has been a much-beloved Downtown staple – in various guises, and under different owners (including a brief, ill-fated existence as The Highliner) – for more than forty years.
It was in 1976, that the trio of Jack Doenias, Richard Ruskay, and Carl Laanes bought the Art Moderne dining car that had become an abandoned greasy-spoon, at 210 Tenth Avenue (which was a fairly shady area, back then). With a few upgrades – the installation of a miniature stainless steel representation of the Empire State Building on the roof; having “EAT” painted on the building, above and behind the diner; and replacing the Formica countertops and tables with black glass – the trio unveiled the Empire Diner, and simultaneously ushered in a pair of eras.
Not only was the landmark restaurant a harbinger of the Chelsea Renaissance that followed; but – thanks to both its décor and its menu (featuring both all-American diner fare, and haute cuisine) it also led the retro-diner movement across the country.
Over the years, I’ve had some memorable meals at the Empire Diner – with everyone from Michael Schmidt, Jimmy James, Michael Economy, and Billy Erb (after a fun night of dancing at The Park), to Greg Calejo, Paige Patterson, and Marisa Tomei (for Lisa Raden’s birthday dinner), more often than not, as the last stop on a night of carousing.
And now, it’s reemerged, again – and I’m pleased to report that the Empire Diner is not only back; but its single-page menu is perfection, and the food is outta sight! Credit the pairing of Stacy Pisone (managing partner of longtime Chelsea fave, Cafeteria), and Chef John Delucie.
Having taken the redeye (from Las Vegas, via JFK), I arrived at the Chelsea aerie of Jeffrey Tousey and Billy GIlbane (who graciously host me, each summer, at Hollow Leg Hall - their historic home on Skaneateles Lake - but more on that, later); with just enough time for Billy and I to partake in a leisurely breakfast, before our drive up to Blue Stone Manor (Dorinda Medley’s Stanford White-designed Beaux Arts estate, in the Berkshires, where we’d been invited for the weekend).
We moseyed on over to the Empire Diner, and took a seat on the patio. Upon glancing at the menu (I cannot tell you how much I love a one-page menu…), my eyes immediately settled on the Rye Pancakes (with fresh berries, and Vermont maple syrup). And while I love a pancake, and am a fan of rye bread; the thought of caraway seeds in my flapjacks wasn’t too appealing. However, the waiter told me that it’s not that kind of rye, and encouraged me to give ‘em a whirl. I’m so glad he did, because they were among the ten best orders of pancakes I’ve ever had. Light and fluffy on the plate, they were substantial enough to absorb the butter and syrup without falling apart – and THAT’s how you make a pancake.
The next week, I met my pal Amy Sacco for a bite of lunch, and (located as it is, down the block from her London Terrace pied-a-terre) we chose the Empire Diner. This time, I opted for the Empire Special Blend Burger (with a double patty, American cheese, aioli, and house dill pickles), which is basically Chef Delucie’s take on the Big Mac – and it’s gooooood. Amy ordered the Crispy Artichokes (with house white anchovy aioli) and gave them a rave.
To end our meal on a sweet note, we got the S’mores Torte (with toasted marshmallow, dark chocolate mousse, and honey graham ice cream). It was that rare dessert that was utterly delicious; yet didn’t leave me feeling the self-loathing that comes from indulging so, in the middle of the afternoon.
Now I understand why so many of my friends in Chelsea have been flocking to the Empire Diner, for multiple meals each week. It’s very good food, at very reasonable prices (especially for this ‘hood, and this town); and it all works.
Chelsea | New York
Click HERE for info
Get into it!