Last week, I was walking around the Financial District when I found myself staring at the little diner on Pearl Street in amazement. How in the hell had this thing managed to survive into present day New York when you consider the towering skyscrapers surrounding it?
New York has its share of diners, but it’s the stand-alone ones that really fascinate me: one-story restaurants entirely devoted to serving pancakes, hamburgers, and other affordable fare while illogically taking up plots of land worth millions upon millions of dollars.
When I arrived in New York 14 years ago, there were still a decent amount left, like the Cheyenne Diner on 33rd Street:
Today, it’s a vacant lot, soon to become a 9-story apartment building:
Many other classic New York greasy spoons have bit the dust in the past 20 years, making the stand-alone diner one of the most endangered building types in the city. By my count, there are just five left. If I’ve missed any, let me know!
1) Pearl Street Diner – 212 Pearl Street, Financial District
The Pearl Street Diner opened in the early 1960s at the corner of Pearl and the appropriately diminutive Fletcher Street. It miraculously survived the construction of the 24-story office building behind it, which went up in the early 1970s.
The diner was made by the famous Kullman Dining Car Company, a prefab diner manufacturer founded in 1927.
My favorite bit is the sign, which looks great during the day…
…but at night, makes New York City look like New York City:
A close-up (I really wish the PEARL lettering still lit up):
The diner has been renovated over the years, but little bits of stainless steel are still visible.
2) Market Diner – 572 Eleventh Avenue – Hell’s Kitchen
Of all the places on this list, Market Diner is the one that seems to revel in breaking all the laws of New York City real estate – first, by occupying a massive lot that could easily be used to build a very tall, very expensive highrise…
…and then devoting a large portion of said space to drive-up parking for customers. DRIVE-UP PARKING. IN MANHATTAN. Is there any other place that does this??
It’s almost as if the adjacent highrises are gazing down mockingly at the little diner, completely oblivious to the fact that there’s more New York charm in this one-story eatery than in all of their generic 40+ stories:
The Market Diner opened in 1962 and soon amassed a diverse clientele, from members of the Hell’s Kitchen gang to Frank Sinatra. After closing in 2006, the diner miraculously reopened in 2009 after undergoing a full refurbishment, which added a brown color scheme and an outdoor section where additional parking used to be.
I love the zigzag roof, along with the rounded entrance-way:
I also love the stainless steel Market Diner sign extending off the adjacent building:
Sadly, the interior has been more or less gutted and modernized, but at least the old girl is still standing.
3) Empire Diner – 210 Tenth Avenue – Chelsea
When you think of a classic New York City diner, you think of the Empire.
Built in 1946 by the Fodero Dining Car Company, the diner is decked out in chrome with black and white accents, making it almost feel like it’s wearing a tuxedo. After closing in the early 1970s, the Empire later found fame as an upscale eatery during the Chelsea renaissance of the 1970s/80s.
The diner was once topped with a stainless steel Empire State Building, sadly now gone (the EAT sign is still there, thankfully):
The Empire closed abruptly in 2010, reopened from 2010-2012 as the badly-reviewed Highliner, then closed again.
Luckily, the Empire Diner is back in business under its original name, offering somewhat upscale versions of all the dishes you go to a diner for.
4) Hector’s – 44 Little West 12th Street – Meatpacking District
Hector’s is unique on the list for being the one diner with no choice but to be a one-story establishment – it’s located directly under the Highline!
In business since 1949, Hector’s is as old-school as they come, and despite the trendiness of the Meatpacking District, it still draws an incredibly quirky clientele who seem to have been transported from a bygone New York. The busiest period is often around 4am when the meatpackers begin arriving for work.
Hector’s has been able to survive because the city owns the building, along with the buildings housing the seven other remaining meatpacking businesses in the area. The rent is kept below market, and for that reason, Hector’s will survive for the forseeable future. Check out this great NY Times article for more info.
5) Square Diner – 33 Leonard Street – Tribeca
The Square Diner has the strangest name on this list for one simple reason…
The diner is actually a triangle!
Blue with stainless steel trim and an unusual roof, the Square Diner dates to 1945 and was once known as the Triangle Diner, according to Forgotten-NY.
If you can picture it without the roof, it’s actually as classic a train-car diner as they come:
But the interior is where the Square diner shines: gorgeous wood-paneled walls and ceiling…
…red vinyl booths…
…and of course, that stainless steel finish:
X) The Terminal Diner – RIP
There’s actually one final stand-alone diner left in New York, though it’s long been abandoned – the former Terminal Diner on West Street. Two years ago, I took these pictures for an article on its history:
At that time, it had been out of business for six years and was in horrible shape, but still had a bit of life left.
I swung by last week to take updated pictures for this article, and was relieved to see that the owner’s appeared to finally be making an effort to preserve it with the addition of plywood covering the front.
Then I took a look through the fence. Nope – this one’s a corpse.
Let’s not have any of the other five diners on this list end up like the Terminal. Every once in a while, make it a point to close the Yelp app and put your trust in a classic New York diner. You won’t be disappointed.
PS – For more information on New York’s diners in all five boroughs, be sure to read Forgotten NY’s fantastic article on the subject.
PPS – If it’s any consolation, several of New York’s diners have been packed up and shipped off to the other destinations, preserving them in the most extreme fashion imaginable.
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