Sunday, June 02, 2019

Vanishing Diners. Not so fast.

Café Mason, San Francsico

It turns out that the middle class isn’t the only thing being priced out of big cities. With rising real estate prices and bad margins diners, those bastions of comfort food, big menus, modest prices and long hours are in decline especially in New York where they are disappearing at the rate of 13 a year. It’s a sad state of affairs for this diner lover. Though, with as many as 500 still operating in New York, you won’t go hungry quite yet.

I was prompted to opine on the subject by a May 24 New Times article entitled, New York’s Vanishing Diners and by a fine dinner a month ago at the lovely and vivacious Mason Diner in San Francisco. I am a big fan of a 200-item menu that’s often served 24 hours a day. As a much younger man, the diner was the place to go after the bars closed in places like Manhattan, Philly and LA. Variations on that routine exist everywhere. In college, as my friend John Farnsworth can attest, it was the coffee shop at the Safari Hotel in Scottsdale or Bill Johnson’s Big Apple in Phoenix. Why I craved a Cobb Salad at 2am is a mystery. But I digress.

The Summit Diner now called the Broadway Diner in Summit, New Jersey

The origin of the diner is probably the horse drawn wagon that Rhode Island’s Water Scott converted into a dining car that served workers late at night. Later in the early 1900s diner owner T.H. Buckley discovered that building diners made more sense than operating one. He is considered to be the inventor of the dining “car” that proliferates on the East Coast. His company was called the Worcester Lunch Car Company and soon he had two competitors, Tierney and O’Mahony.  A diner needn’t be the iconic metal glad bubble that I revere, however.  Many in New York and New Jersey are storefronts or full-on restaurants built on site. O’Mahony, in fact, build the first stationary diner in 1913. And by the 1950s, the apex of the diner craze, the were 6,000 O’Mahony diners across the country. The article says O’Mahony owned them all. I’m not convinced.

South Street Diner, Boston

South Street Diner, Boston
New Jersey is the center of diner culture in the U.S. There are said to be 600 diners in the Garden State alone, many Greek owned for reasons I can only hypothesize. More than 500 diners in New York City and on Long Island are Greek owned. 350,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States in the 1900s. And they brought with them coffee house acumen and zealous entrepreneurship which morphed into the great American Diner. I surmise that Greek immigrant families who had found success in the diner business shared their knowhow within the tightly knit Greek American community and soon there was an explosion of diners in the Northeast. There’s certainly a corollary history in Boston of Greek owned pizza restaurants. In Boston if it’s called House of Pizza it’s owned by a Greek. Newton House of Pizza, Greek. Watertown House of Pizza, Greek. The price of entry is modest, it’s easily learned and passed on and soon you have dozens of little storefront pizza operations across the Bay State. It’s not much of a stretch to think the same thing happened with diners.

In fact, Santa Fe’s Plaza Café is essentially a diner with all the stainless steel and tile elements that say “diner.” And, yes, there’s souvlaki on the menu and it was opened by the very Greek Dan Razatos in 1947. His son Dan operates the place like a well-oiled machine to this day. It's a real fave though the lunchtime crush is a drag.

Killer BLT with avocado at Santa Fe's Plaza Café

So, too, is the Range Café in Bernalillo, NM. It’s basically a diner serving three meals and breakfast all day. The difference is that the Range and the Plaza Café are open typical restaurant hours and do not enjoy the bleary late-night crush that I recall so fondly. Maybe they’re chicken.
The Café, Bernalillo, NM

Steak Sandwich Tampiqueña, The Range Café

There was a raft of diner themed restaurants that opened in the eighties. There were ersatz affairs with Happy Days décor and burger and fries menus. And there were upscale takes on the theme, too. Cindy Pawlcyn’s Fog City Diner that opened on San Francisco’s Embarcadero in 1985 comes to mind. It’s still flourishing though Cindy escaped to Napa and her other endeavors such as Mustard’s Grill which opened in 1983.

I myself had a close call with the diner business back in the eighties. I was on the board of a promising concept called Ediner which was based in suburban Minneapolis, specifically Edina. Get it?  I was so smitten that I along two partners bought the franchise for, surprise, San Francisco. It was on the heels of opening a couple of successful restaurants there and was deeply in love with the city so I went all in. The flawed adventure went absolutely nowhere though it did entail numerous trips to SFO. So, it wasn’t a total loss. Well, maybe it was. I offered a myriad of suggestions to the owner and founder of Ediner. When those ideas fell on deaf ears and brought in an operations guy from a budget steakhouse chain I pulled the plug. This all happened during the questionable three-year sabbatical I took during my peak earning years and with a kid I college. Don’t sneer.


Blacks Crossing said...

Great concept and photographs, as well as history. Sounds to me like there is a giant, multi-year photographic road trip in the offing here. Your blog is a super beginning. Hope you take off with it. Thanks for the education and making me hungry!

samaher said...

شركة نقل عفش من الرياض الى مكة

شركة نقل عفش من الرياض الى الامارات شحن عفش من الرياض الى الامارات
شركة نقل عفش من الرياض الى الاردن شحن عفش من الرياض الى الاردن

شركة نقل عفش من الرياض الى الاحساء