The Last Five Stand-Alone Diners in Manhattan

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?

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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:

cheyenne

Picture courtesy Flickr user DrJoolz – Click for more!

Today, it’s a vacant lot, soon to become a 9-story apartment building:

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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.

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The diner was made by the famous Kullman Dining Car Company, a prefab diner manufacturer founded in 1927.

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My favorite bit is the sign, which looks great during the day…

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…but at night, makes New York City look like New York City:

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A close-up (I really wish the PEARL lettering still lit up):

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The diner has been renovated over the years, but little bits of stainless steel are still visible.

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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…

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…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??

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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:

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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.

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I love the zigzag roof, along with the rounded entrance-way:

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I also love the stainless steel Market Diner sign extending off the adjacent building:

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Sadly, the interior has been more or less gutted and modernized, but at least the old girl is still standing.

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3) Empire Diner – 210 Tenth Avenue – Chelsea

When you think of a classic New York City diner, you think of the Empire.

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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.

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The diner was once topped with a stainless steel Empire State Building, sadly now gone (the EAT sign is still there, thankfully):

Empire Diner

Picture courtesy Flickr user Joseph A – Click for larger size!

The Empire closed abruptly in 2010, reopened from 2010-2012 as the badly-reviewed Highliner, then closed again.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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5) Square Diner – 33 Leonard Street – Tribeca

The Square Diner has the strangest name on this list for one simple reason…

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The diner is actually a triangle!

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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.

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If you can picture it without the roof, it’s actually as classic a train-car diner as they come:

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But the interior is where the Square diner shines: gorgeous wood-paneled walls and ceiling…

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…red vinyl booths…

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…and of course, that stainless steel finish:

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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:

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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.

kull (5)

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.

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Then I took a look through the fence. Nope – this one’s a corpse.

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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.

-SCOUT

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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51 comments

  1. A great piece.. Thank you !!!

  2. I believe you missed one. What about Star on 18? I also mourne the demise of diners but was happy to see Star on 18 on Tenth Ave and 18 still shining brightly when I passed by my old neighborhood in mid-January.

    Thanks for your posts.

    Jess Prince

  3. You actually forgot another one, Imperial Coffee House, on Chambers & Church Street. Still has vestiges of its aluminum on the Chambers street side.

  4. How about Brooklyn Diner on W. 58th Street? I believe it’s stand alone.

  5. Is the Skylight Diner on W34th still there?
    It’s still on Google Street view and that was updated only last year judging by some hoardings I noticed nearby.

    https://www.google.co.uk/maps/preview/@40.753484,-73.996522,3a,75y,212.88h,78.64t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1syF26hGf8CL_TA-jHw0jntA!2e0

    • It definitely is there. For this article, because it was as much about the building as the cuisine, my criteria for a stand-alone diner was that it had to have at least two sides exposed, but what’s more, really feel like a standalone building rather than a storefront wedged between other storefronts. Nothing against storefront diners, there are some great ones out there! But I drew the line there.

  6. I know a number of people who will be interested in this post (besides myself of course!)- thanks for including that sad little Terminal Diner, we see it often as we exit the tunnel, and I always wish we could take it home with us and cheer it up.

    I had never even heard of the triangular Square Diner so thanks for scouting that out!

    As we all know, property prices and “air rights” make these places as scarce as hens teeth!

    xo / Mod Betty

  7. I ate at at Terminal when right b4 it closed. It was known as Rib. It’s a shame that it has been allowed to rot. Don’t think it will be standing much longer.

  8. http://www.yelp.com/biz/new-york-diner-long-island-city

    I think this is still open, although it’s only open for breakfast and lunch, and closes pretty early, last time I checked.

  9. Billy Joel mentions the Empire Diner in his song ‘Great Wall of China’.

  10. I was mortified when the Empire closed… The owners invited me to the closing party. I honestly had no idea it was back in business. Hopefully it hasn’t changed much. I wrote about many of these places for my still-in-the-works egg cream project a couple of years ago (I have yet to post my review of Hector’s):

    http://www.jamescampbelltaylor.com/2011/04/egg-cream-u-bet/

  11. I immediately thought of Star Diner at 10th and 18th as well. And is the Empire still a diner at all,what with the upscaleness of its menu?

    • I went back and forth, but had to concede considering the fare is at least the standard diner menu, if a fancier version, and because it has such a classic exterior.

  12. Would you count The Famous Cozy Soup & Burger at Broadway & Astor?

    http://www.cozysoupandburger.com/

    It’s attached on each side to a high-rise, but the deli itself is a one-story building.

    • For this article, because it was as much about the building as the cuisine, my criteria for a stand-alone diner was that it had to have at least two sides exposed, but what’s more, really feel like a standalone building rather than a storefront wedged between other storefronts. Nothing against storefront diners, there are some great ones out there! But I drew the line there.

  13. Correct to Pearl Street Diner Information. The diner was manufactured by Fidero Dining Car Company located in central NJ not Kullman Dining Car Co as stated in the article.

  14. Moondance on 6th ave?

  15. Diners used to be my hangout of choice, although closer to my home in Brooklyn. But, I have eaten at the Square many times and it’s a great place. The food and service is great, and the prices are fairly moderate for a city diner. Whenever I’m hungry in the neighborhood I head right there (which, sadly, isn’t often enough). I also work near The Terminal and have watched its sad decline to its current state. In fact, before this recent paneling, I stomped around inside a bit to snag some pics. Aside from it being utterly destroyed, someone was living in the kitchen area amongst the strangely left behind kitchen appliances. Sad, but really, not much food traffic near the West Side without all those businesses there.

  16. You missed a great one in Queens – Court Square diner:
    http://www.courtsquarediner.com/aboutus.html
    Alive and well and open 24/7!
    Right near the Court Square terminal, across the street from 5 Pointz (RIP).

  17. Too bad Munson’s in the west 50s is gone too. BTW, this site has some excellent photos of the terminal before it fell apart: http://georgehahn.com/2012/06/14/the-abandoned-kullman-car-diner-on-the-west-side-highway/

  18. Missed one! (maybe) I think The Star on 18th is a stand alone. It’s on the corner of 18th and 10th.

  19. What about La Esquina ( http://www.esquinanyc.com/‎) at 114 Kenmare St, New York, NY 10012 ?

    Looks like a diner. Calls itself a deli… I don’t know.

    K

  20. people really like to comment without reading the article or even the title of the post.

  21. Great Blog, that came up on a search, we come across from the UK once or twice a year and spend our first breakfast in the square diner, acclimatizing to the NYC beat before we head off to explore.

    Keep up the great work!

  22. But are these the only ones? I immediate thought of Kellogg’s Diner on Metropolitan. Surely there are others.

  23. I think referring to the current Empire as a “diner” is a stretch… It’s an upscale restaurant that happens to be in a building that once was a diner.

  24. Don’t Forget the Jones Diner (Lafayette and Great Jones) which closed about12 years ago. See me youtube video of it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFOBzGxP42Q

  25. Interesting, I was really shocked to see that the Cheyenne had gone! I am an illustrator / drawer / Lecturer and ate there many times. Bt not for a few years. I came across it around 1999 and returned on several other trips to NYC. I thought it was a good sign to see many cabs etc outside. It was unpretentious and civil. It inspired and appeared in a children’s book I wrote and illustrated in 07′ “Grandpa Jack’s Tattoo Tales” published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux (NYC) It did not do very well and is now out of print…:-(
    I did a small project years ago in London when I was a student, drawing the few wooden taxi ‘rests’ where cabbies could get a brew and roll…They often stood in the middle of the road if it was wide enough (outside the V&A museum) on tucked away in some of the ‘squares’.
    Keep up the good work.
    Mark

  26. The Terminal makes me so sad. It really tried to make a go of it several times. I recall that for a while it was called “Video Diner” (something like that). You could eat and watch a movie at your table.

  27. I’d be willing to bet the reason a lot of these still exist at all had a lot to do with sale of air rights to build aforementioned skyscrapers.

  28. Great work bringing these all together :-) So I don’t forget to do this the next time in NYC, I’ve created a downloadable guide of all the diners on Jauntful (a great site for travel guides). It may be useful for others:

    https://jauntful.com/jordanharper/x10_ZPhqq

  29. How sad that these wonderful buildings are disappearing; it is like erasing part of your history. They look so snug and comfy too.

  30. When I first moved to NYC in 1987 I lived just down 22nd Street, half a block from the Empire Diner. The Empire was featured in the opening credits of The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (starring Blair Brown) and it was such a thrill to this brand new New Yorker to see that iconic spot which was part of my neighborhood on the small screen. Back then our corner of Chelsea had not yet been re gentrified nor populated by the art scene and certainly no one had conceived of the High Line! It was terribly authentic and you dodged drug dealers and hookers to get to that corner for any after hours snack…

  31. I ate at the Terminal Diner a few times back in the 80s when Tribeca (and all downtown really) was the empty outskirts of the city and there were lots of burned out cars and junk on the side of the West Side Highway and you might get mugged there. I miss it. The Terminal was probably exactly as you would imagine it, a perfect NYC diner experience. But I’m mainly commenting to say that I’m pretty sure The Square Diner refers to the fact that it is on Franklin Square. Good article, thanks.

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