Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dark Times For Diners

There are no Michelin stars on the door, but you will not find a better breakfast in New York City than at the Bel Aire Diner in Astoria, Queens. The coffee, a lighter roast than Starbucks' and brewed three gallons at a time, is always fresh because just about every customer gets a refill or three. The Greek Breakfast entrée is a masterpiece of the line cook's art, a combination of eggs (any style), feta cheese, soft black olives and grilled fresh tomatoes whose juice seasons the toasted pita.

The Bel Aire is run under the glare of Argyris "Archie" Dellaportas, who immigrated to Queens in 1972 at age 18 from the Greek island of Cephalonia. He baked bread at the Westway Diner in Hell's Kitchen and other joints before being hired to run a diner in Maryland, which meant long stretches away from his wife and children.

In 1996, Dellaportas came back when he bought the Bel Aire for $350,000. The diner is open 24 hours a day, and for many years Dellaportas toiled during most of them, going to work at 5 in the morning and staying until 11 at night or later. The backbreaking work paid off when, in 2001 and again in 2005, the Daily News named the Bel Aire New York's best diner. Food tourists and curiosity seekers—including Tina Fey and James Gandolfini, whose television series were filmed nearby—flocked to the corner of Broadway and 21st Street, if only to see the exemplar of what is at once a classic symbol and generic staple of New York culture.

"To me, the Bel Aire epitomizes the diner," said Astoria native Nick Papamichael. "So much in New York has changed, but the Bel Aire is the same great place."

At least for now, Dellaportas, who is 62 and hasn't taken a vacation in 20 years, has dialed back his hours and is contemplating retirement. That would mean passing on the business to his two sons, whom he's been grooming for a while. But, truth be told, he isn't sure they're up to the task. Diners, historically more profitable than most restaurants, have seen their margins halved in recent years, owing to the rising cost of rent, staff and even eggs.

In this environment, Dellaportas isn't sure his boys have the personalities to compete. "You have to be tough in this business; otherwise people will cheat you," he said one recent afternoon as he ate an early dinner of grilled skirt steak and fries. "I don't know if my sons are tough enough."

The situation at the Bel Aire says a lot about what's happening throughout New York's diner culture, where the helpings are huge, the prices are right, and poring over the laminated pages of Greek, Italian and American menu options takes about as long as reading a Russian novel.

But these breakfast conveniences, lunch go-tos, dinners of last resort and midnight hangouts are closing at a rapid rate. Between economic pressures, changes in eating habits and a next-generation not as interested as their parents in spending 16 hours a day manning a cash register, the city's diner scene may soon no longer exist. (...)

Historians devoted to the study of diners—yes, that's a thing—estimate there were 1,000 diners in the city a generation ago. There are now only 398 establishments that describe themselves as diners or coffee shops, according to city Department of Health records. (...)

t's also a business with its own distinct place in popular culture. Exhibit A: Edward Hopper's iconic Nighthawks painting, with its depiction of three customers and a waiter burning the midnight oil. Exhibit B: Seinfeld, the classic sitcom whose main characters regularly noshed at Monk's, an imaginary Upper West Side greasy spoon modeled after Tom's Diner at West 112th Street and Broadway. (Tom's was also the subject of a song by Suzanne Vega, who attended nearby Barnard College.) Exhibit C: Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, the long-running Food Network series starring Guy Fieri.

A diner is where Tony Soprano had what may have been his last meal and where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson's characters discussed the difference between miracles and acts of God in Pulp Fiction. Just recently, a scene in The Good Wife was shot at the Bel Aire.

The draw of diners for cultural tastemakers may have something to do with their egalitarian nature, drawing the high and mighty as well as average Joes. (...)

Gutman, who was a consultant to the 1982 Barry Levinson film Diner, explained that "there's a certain unpretentiousness to diners, with the counter, stools and booths. But there's also action and a friendliness you can partake of in a way you can't in a chain restaurant."

There's even a patois particular to diners, where rye bread is referred to as "whiskey," rye toast is "whiskey down," "black and blue" is a rare steak, and "84 scrambled" means eight scrambled eggs served on four plates.

Foodie culture also has taken to diners. Champs Diner in Brooklyn specializes in vegan fare such as tofu Benedict and "soysage" patties. The Empire Diner in Chelsea, whose kitchen until July was run by celebrity chef Amanda Freitag, offers a vintage look and upmarket fare like $25 pan-roasted, antibiotic-free chicken and a $16 Greek salad with "protein additions," such as seared yellowfin tuna, for an additional $7. "The Empire became the first diner to put on airs," said Gutman. "A diner has got to be affordable. Otherwise it gets too uppity."

by Aaron Elstein, Crain's |  Read more:
Image: Buck Ennis