Monday, July 24, 2017

What’ll It Be for the New York Diner?

There’s a story that a few of the wistful regulars from my old diner, Joe Jr.’s, which used to occupy a narrow little space in the Village on the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 12th Street, still like to tell about the time Louie the waiter died of a heart attack. Like many vanished coffee shops, diners, and luncheonettes around the city, Joe’s was a loose, convivial club for the people who frequented the place. I would see the movie director John Waters at the counter, dressed in his neatly pressed suits, sipping coffee in a fastidious, mannered way. Isaac Mizrahi was a regular during his pre-TV days, and if my addled memory is correct, so was that great chronicler of big-city eccentrics, the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who used to drop by now and then, wearing his gray fedora.

Louie was the indispensable front-of-the-house man at Joe Jr.’s, a formidable maître d’ figure who, like Sirio Maccioni during the heyday of Le Cirque, knew the quirks of all the regulars and assigned everyone to his or her proper place. He knew that I preferred to sit at either end of the counter for my solitary afternoon BLTs (with extra mayo) and that my youngest daughter, Penelope, liked her usual chicken soup (in a bowl, extra crackers) any time of the day or night. He kept order when drunks would stagger in off the street, and he had a knack for calming down the more unconventional Village regulars, like “the Tattoo Lady,” whose face was covered in a pattern of intricate tattoos, and another regular who had a habit, when she was overwhelmed by the cares of the world, of screaming out her normal order — “Eight coffees, light and sweet!” — at the top of her lungs.

When Louie died, many of the regulars at Joe’s were so shaken that they traveled out to the wake to pay their respects. When they arrived at the funeral home in Queens, the restaurant’s staff — short-order cooks, waitresses with their beehive hairdos — were sitting before the open casket dressed in all black. They had solemn looks on their faces, but as their familiar customers filed in, the mood in the room brightened. “They began to whisper to each other. ‘There goes Mr. Whiskey Down, Two Sides of Bacon’; ‘There’s Mrs. Scrambled Eggs, Bagel-Toasted’; ‘There’s Mr. BLT No Mayo,’ ” one of the devoted regulars who made the trip recalls. “Joe’s was a funny kind of dysfunctional family. I felt so safe there. I couldn’t have had a better time dining at Le Pavillon.”

Joe Jr.’s closed in the summer of 2009, with a farewell note hastily tacked up in the window explaining that the restaurant had lost its lease and, after more than 30 years in business, they were saying good-bye. Like Henri Soulé’s famous French restaurant, it was replaced, in time, by a more fashionable version of itself: a café serving Brazilian coffee, where a new generation of headphone-wearing habitués crowd the uncomfortable wood chairs, peering silently into their laptops, sipping four-dollar coffee from biodegradable paper cups. For a while, the Platts tried to find another place in our little neighborhood to go for our family breakfasts, but the dwindling number of old-time diners and coffee shops were too crowded or too anonymous or too far away. When my daughters want a bowl of chicken soup, these days, they get it at the Pret a Manger down the street, and although I pass the now-svelte Mizrahi on the street sometimes, I’ve never seen John Waters or the Tattoo Lady again.

Like most mass-extinction events, the Massive Diner, Coffee Shop, and Greasy Spoon Die-Off has been unfolding slowly around us for decades, in plain sight. According to a much-fretted-over Crain’s report from a couple of years back, the city’s Department of Health lists around 400 restaurants with the words diner and coffee in their name, a number that experts say is down from a thousand restaurants a generation ago. (Many nouveau coffee shops don’t have coffee in the name.) Like the old Automats and cafeterias of the ’50s and ’60s, and a generation of classic Jewish delis before that, diners are in decline for many reasons: skyrocketing rents and land values; ever-rising food prices; the spread of a more expedient, highbrow and lowbrow coffee culture; the gentle, inexorable aging of a whole generation of neighborhood “regulars”; the difficulty of keeping an ancient, sprawling, ten-page menu in tune with the changing tastes of the times; and the challenges of passing on a family business to a new generation of proprietors, many of whom have the benefit of a college education, and might prefer frittering their days away in barista bars to breaking eggs over a hot stove.

Among members of this comfort-food-obsessed, single-origin-bean generation, it’s become fashionable to mourn the passing of this old diner culture. In the past few years, the closings have spread, from Manhattan (the famous Cafe Edison in the Theater District, La Taza de Oro in Chelsea, the Lyric Diner in Gramercy Park), into the outer-boroughs (the Del Rio Diner in Gravesend, the El Greco in Sheepshead Bay), and lamentations in the food press and on the blogs have reached a fever pitch. But in a world filled with a dizzying numbers of choices — an array of options on everything from $25 chef burgers, to how you like your Ethiopian coffee dripped and what shade of almond milk you’d like to pour in it, to what kind of artisanal pork you desire on your haute breakfast sandwich — the diner has become more of a symbol and a curiosity than a regular place to eat. “I grew up on iceberg lettuce, but this new generation knows that iceberg is the butt of all lettuces,” says Griffin Hansbury, who writes under the pseudonym Jeremiah Moss, and whose forthcoming book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, chronicles these slowly disappearing institutions. “For me, the diner is a very democratic place,” he says. But in this new, more moneyed era where it’s fashionable to say that everyone’s a restaurant critic, and arugula replaced iceberg as the green of choice long ago, this new class of eaters favors what he diplomatically calls a “more curated dining experience.”

by Adam Platt, Grub Street |  Read more:
Image: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine