The Last Diners of NYC
August 23 2015
Life in New York City means living with constant change. Change is in fact the only constant—and it’s not always a bad thing. In the ‘70s, the entire city was dying. New York today is virtually indistinguishable from the gritty, crime-ridden, “Fear City” of not all that long ago.
But if you know where to look, you can still find pockets virtually unchanged by time. Places where a waiter runs out to buy a regular a copy of the New York Post, because he knows he likes his matzo ball soup with a side of gossip. Places where a person can sit at a counter and enjoy a meal, without feeling as alone as he or she would at a table set for two. Places that are quick with coffee refills and slow with their checks; with menus so large, you wonder how all of those ingredients can fit inside of those tiny kitchens.
The New York City diner combines the convenience and comfort of a chain restaurant—24-hour service, standard menus—with the ambiance and charm of a small, independent business. Everything on the menu is pronounceable. The coffee arrives black. There is only one size, but you can choose between regular or decaf. Nothing is artisanal or organic or locally-sourced.
Diners have wonderful signage: twisting neon, rusty metal, peeling paint and classic typography. The more aluminum and chrome (inside and out), the better. Counter seating is a must—always stools, never chairs. Vinyl-lined booths, oversized, plastic-coated menus, minimally-adorned china and consoles containing cream, ketchup, jelly, sugar, salt and pepper on every table.
Diners don’t judge. They provide disco fries to the 4am bar crowd, waffles to the 8am breakfast crowd and matzo ball soup to the 4pm dinner crowd. Diners aren’t trendy and they aren’t faux retro. They’ve seen the city go through wars, riots, attacks, storms and blackouts. They’ve seen factories fall around them and luxury apartment buildings rise out of empty lots. They’re as much a part of the New York experience as is the subway, yellow taxi cabs and a paper-thin slice of pizza. They have authenticity that no amount of money can recreate, and they’re in trouble because of it.
There are very few stand-alone diners left in New York City—only six remain in Manhattan. They’re being demolished because the air above them is worth more to developers than the stories contained within their aluminum-clad walls. If they’re very lucky, they’re spared the wrecking ball and carted off to Wyoming or another Midwestern state where land isn’t such a premium and people need a cup of coffee more than they need a luxury condo.
The diners sandwiched between a pour-over coffee shop and a bank, or occupying ground-floor spaces, are also disappearing. Or, perhaps saddest of all: they’re left to decay—replacement is imminent, of course, as everything in this city is for sale to the highest bidder. But until they become glittering monuments to foreign wealth, they serve as daily reminders of generations of stories—and a really solid cup of coffee.
Alexandra Charitan is a graphic designer and frequent diner diner in New York City. She documents most of it at onlylivingirlny.com.