Food has been defined as anything eaten to satisfy an appetite and to meet needs for growth. It maintains all body processes and supplies energy to maintain body temperature and activity. So food is important. But the questions that remains is – where should the food be consumed? At home? In a restaurant? This fourth article on Great Eats is concerned with diners and servers as a follow-up to an excellent May 25, 2019 New York Times (NYT) diner article titled “A Last Cup of Coffee, to Go.”
As one might suppose, the word diner has come to mean different things to different people. Webster defines diner as “a small restaurant built to look like a dining car and equipped to serve meals” while the NYT offered “factory-made lunch cars, often with stainless-steel finishes and neon signs.” Others might describe it as something between a step above a simple eatery with a limited menu to a restaurant with an extensive menu, fancy booths, full bar, take-out menu, etc. The former would probably best describe my father’s “9 stool – 3 table business at the North end of Hell’s Kitchen prior to being evicted by Robert Moses, while the latter would best describe the first two of the diners to be described shortly.
But, then again, why a follow-up article? The NYT article keyed on diner history and diners located in New York City. This article expands the diner story to include not only those in Queens but also Long Island. What follows is a short writing on a diner in Queens and five diners on Long Island. I asked each diner owner to comment on their background, their business, the present state of the diner business, and the future of diners. Here is some of how these six individuals responded.
- The Old Westbury Diner (formerly Seacrest), 4 Glen Cove Road, Old Westbury.
The premier upscale diner on the Island. Owned by Stavros Dimas, who emigrated (legally) from Greece in 1980. He has expressed major concerns with rising labor costs and believes only the large diners will survive in the future. My Take? One of my favorites. Great breakfast, full bar, expansive menu, excellent food, easy parking, very pleasant owner who is concerned with the community, and excellent service. This place is also the closest thing to a classy restaurant.
- The Apollo, 630 Merrick Avenue, East Meadow.
The Apollo is owned by Jimmy (son) and Harry (father) Constantotos. Harry emigrated (legally) from Greece in 1963 and has owned the Apollo since 1976. Perhaps my favorite. As Jimmy put it to me, they “provide basic services, good food and a clean environment.” It features an expansive menu, full bar, ample parking, large portions, very reasonable prices, and excellent service (ask for Nicoletta to be your server). They appear optimistic about the future but expressed concerns with existing competition, labor costs, and the real estate market.
- Uncle Bills, 307 Stratton Place, Linden Place, Whitestone.
This one is owned by “Aki” (little one in Greek), a big brute by my standards. This lovable Greek emigrated (legally) from Cyprus in 1973 and has owned Bill’s for 16 years. Aki claims it is the cheapest diner in Queens (I think he is right). He is concerned about the future because of rising salaries, rent, and competitors. My Take? The place is a local gem with lots of good dishes, easy parking, and the price is definitely right.
On to the next two. Both are Mary’s favorites.
- Thomas’s Diner is located at 325 Old Country Road, Carle Place.
This place is Mary’s favorite. The diner opened in 1946 and has been owned by the (Thomas) Koukoulas family since 1973. Tom indicated that diners will have difficulty surviving in the future because of “chain restaurants where the quality continues to improve. The old school diner will not be around long as many families are not passing the business along.” The place has a limited menu with great food at very reasonable prices. Despite limited parking, this landmark joint is always (and I mean always) jammed. Mary’s favorite (not mine) and an absolute must for diner lovers.
- The Mineola Diner, 138 Jericho Turnpike and Willis Avenue, Mineola.
This is one that has survived the relentless passage of time. Michael Alpert purchased the diner (from a Greek) approximately 10 years ago. One of Mary’s favorites, it features excellent food at reasonable prices. The place is small, parking is a problem, and is only open for breakfast and lunch. The menu is limited but there are nearly 100 items to choose from. Not my favorite, but another landmark that has survived the times and one of the better ones that belongs on everyone’s go-to-place list.
On to the sixth one.
- Station Plaza Coffee Shop and Diner (breakfast and lunch) at 206 Station Plaza, North Mineola (facing South at the train station).
A newcomer and a relatively unknown, it is usually packed. Probably the cheapest diner to eat at. And, the good news is that the food is excellent and plentiful. Lots to like here even though it doesn’t look like a diner. But as the old saying goes – try it and you’ll be sure to like it. Only negative: metered parking is a problem. New owners, George Arniotis (and father) and Pete Vatakis – Greeks, of course – are there for 2 months and are optimistic about the future of diners. “Give them good food and they’ll keep coming back.”
I would be remiss if I did not comment on three other diners. Presently, the diner of all diners is The Neptune (Astoria Blvd. and 31st Street). It was my favorite 65 years ago while growing up in Astoria, and it still is, and is the diner by which all others should be compared. Unfortunately, its days are numbered; it opened its doors for the last time TODAY. (Update: Interestingly, the media had reported that the diner was closing but apparently, the lease was extended.) Another is Mykonos (not the one in Great Neck) – a hole-in-the-wall, semi-diner; it is named after an island in Greece and located in Tarpon Springs, Florida, a community overrun by Greeks and Greek-Americans. Finally, one of my early (pre-teen years) memories that has yet to leave me was dining out on Sundays approximately once a month. It was a Greek eatery – The Acropolis, located on 60th Street, just west of Central Park. I wish it were still around. I can still taste the roast lamb and pastitsio, your author’s two favorite Greek dishes.
Finally, diners remain near the top of my list of restaurants to frequent. Why? Six reasons.
- The food is always fresh
- The price is right
- Expansive menu
- Generous portions
- The ambiance is usually casual
- Rarely a wait
In addition, I still think diners have a bright future despite concerns with dwindling customers, rising rents, lost leases, shrinking profit margins, etc. Some of this is true, but most of the new restaurants reviewed in the literature are hellaciously priced. I make every effort to stay away from these joints; they simply are not worth it. The diners have been hurt by credit cards and a more strict enforcement of the tax codes, i.e., they can no longer rely on patron tax charges that often served as the margin of profit. Two options that can help diners survive is to modestly increase prices and provide a more compact, rather than expansive, menu.
A closeout? I need to mention my current favorite of favorites. It is the Triangle Diner located in Saratoga Springs, home of summer thoroughbred racing in August; my recent visit to SS was the 64th year in a row (see pics below). The diner is a “garage,” similar to an old-fashioned diner located in the middle of nowhere during the depression era. It is surrounded by some really great 4-star restaurants, including 15 Church and Pennell’s. Yet, it is the 3rd highest rated restaurant in SS. Fantastic breakfast and lunch at extremely reasonable prices. A local gem and a must for all SS lovers.
Below are three pics. One at our hotel, another at the racetrack and the third at the Triangle Diner.
Please drop me a note about your favorite diner.
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