New York’s best diners still have that classic, 24-hour appeal
Jerry Stephanitsis stands in front of his Pelham Bay Diner in the Bronx.
The Bronx Breakfast - bacon, ham, sausage, two eggs and pancakes - is one of the most requested dishes at the Pelham Bay Diner.
Longtime Rego Park resident Abby Metzger eats breakfast and dinner every day at the Tower Diner in Forest Hills, and raves about her kitchen away from home.
“I’ve never sent anything back,” says the retired dress store manager. “For breakfast, the omelets and the French toast are unbelievable. The dinners, you can’t ask for anything better. And it’s just a nice place to be.”
Diners – despite their dwindling numbers – still stir passionate feelings in New Yorkers charmed by the 24/7 hours and the larger-than-life menus where you can get breakfast at midnight or dinner at 4 a.m. Diners glorify tradition and evoke nostalgia for a simpler time, when the maitre d’ greeted every patron by name at the door and asked after family members. While the rest of the city’s all caught up in whether our cannoli have traces of trans fats or not, diners unapologetically celebrate gravy, butter, and salad dressing on top, not on the side.
So where to find these time-honored classic diners? When we invited Daily News readers to e-mail us about their favorite diners, we got letters singing the praises of places throughout the city. Here’s a peek at some of the most popular diners around the boroughs, and why their owners say they’re still drawing crowds.
Mark Walter lived in the Bronx for 47 years before moving six years ago to Colorado, where he works for a bank. When he comes to New York (which he still refers to as “home”), he always eats at least once at the Pelham Bay Diner (1920 East Gun Hill Rd., Bronx; 718-379-2123; www.pelhambaydiner.com).
“It has to be breakfast at the Pelham Bay Diner,” Walter says.
Owned by Jerry and Carol Stefanitsis, the diner’s been open for a quarter of a century, and indeed, one of its best sellers is the Bronx Breakfast, a massive, heart- (un)healthy platter that consists of bacon, ham, sausage, two eggs and pancakes. The breakfast could easily satisfy three people, while the chicken soup, burgeoning with chunks of chicken, carrot and noodles, is a meal in itself.
“The egg specials are one of our biggest sellers,” says Jerry Stefanitsis. “Also, people like that we never close. We don’t even have a key to lock the door.”
That’s good news to customers like Kevin Quinn of City Island, who often stops in with his wife on the way home from visiting his 21-year-old son, who’s been hospitalized for the past couple of months. They usually get cheeseburgers. “It’s always been top shelf,” he says. “Every time I eat here, it’s good.”
Tara O’Connell of City Island visits the Pelham Bay Diner at dawn, after a night on the town, to feast on cheese fries.
“They have the best cheese fries here,” she says. “The service is always good and whenever you come in here, you always see someone you know.”
How does this diner thrive when others have closed to make room for high-rises? “You have to update the menu,” says Jerry. “We have wraps and panini now, and a lot of salads.” And to keep up with today’s tastes, those salads have not just iceberg, but mesclun.
Spiro Katehis works at least 12 hours a day at his diner, the Carroll Gardens Classic Diner (155 Smith St., Brooklyn; 718-403-9940; www.carrollgardensclassicdiner.com), and his hard work pays off. In this cheerful cafe with flowered walls, ceiling fans and flat screen TVs at both ends, customers flock for specials like homemade chicken pot pie, brisket of beef with gravy and potatoes, and grilled chicken-orzo salad.
“I usually do not care for diners, but I believe this diner serves quality breakfast and lunch dishes,” says Sheri Josephs, a Brooklyn attorney and frequent visitor to the diner. “The food is always fresh and the service is wonderful as well.” (Her personal faves are egg dishes and pancakes.)
Adds Samantha Lowe, a young mom in the nabe who’d just come in with her six-week-old daughter and a friend for lunch, “I am here probably two times a week and I usually get the omelets. I love the vegetable omelet.”
The Carroll Gardens Diner may have an enormous menu, with a dozen burger variations, eggs 16 different ways and 11 different side dishes, but everything comes out made to order. That’s because one of the watchful owners is always on hand to make sure everything runs smoothly.
“I’m a 24/7 person, we never close,” says Katehis, who was born in Greece and co-owns the diner with partner Evan Stogianos. “What’s great about diners is that you can go in anytime and have anything you want. It’s not just beef goulash and stuffed peppers. It’s everything.”
At the Tower Diner in Forest Hills, Queens (98-95 Queens Blvd., Forest Hills; 718-459-7000; www.towerdiner.com), loyal customers visit often. Melissa Landanno of Forest Hills, who works in Patient Centered Care at New York Presbyterian Hospital, has the diner on speed dial and visits at least once every two weeks.
“One of my first dates with my now fiance was a late-night breakfast there,” she recalls. “He took me out for my favorite - pancakes at around 11 p.m. I also love the challah French toast that falls off the plate and burgers that are just awesome.”
The Tower, housed in a former bank building with an unusual, almost triangular shape, features omelets in varieties like avocado, corned beef and pastrami. Triple decker clubs (roast beef, sliced turkey and baked Virginia ham) are towering creations, as are the half-pound burgers like the tower burger (sauteed onions and mushrooms top this behemoth).
Owner Spiro Gatanas - he actually owns the place with his dad and his brother - does a brisk takeout business, too, and there’s free delivery in the nabe. His secret to success? Keeping up with trends. “We trimmed down the pastas because everyone is trying to stay fit,”he says. “We offer lettuce and tomatoes instead of home fries, and our coffee is great.”
As Abby Metzger says, “Everyone congregates here. If you see someone on the street, you say, Hey, I’ll meet you at the Tower!”
In Manhattan, the Red Flame Diner (67 W. 44th St.; 212-869-3965) does a brisk business thanks to patrons like Angela Eliane, director of attorney recruitment for a firm in the city. “You name it, they got it,” she says. “Great burgers, egg creams, salads, soups. And of course, who doesn’t mind being treated like one of the family?”
Owned by John Katsanos and family members since 1979, the Red Flame has long-standing customers who come a great distance to eat the deluxe bison burgers, ice cream-topped Belgian waffles and San Diego omelets (ham, peppers, onion, American cheese). A milkshake here was extra thick, and the burger exceptionally juicy.
But it’s the eggs that keep Conroy Alexander of Irvington, N.J., coming back. The former Brooklyn resident, now retired, still travels into midtown to order onion omelets, replete with plenty of lightly browned onion. “I’m a real egg person and this is a good omelet,” he says. “I also come because the service is wonderful, and I love the coffee.” (He drinks his black.)
“We keep it old fashioned,” said Katsanos, who owns the place with three older brothers. (All were born in Greece.) “And we know all our customers. When you give good food and good service, that’s it, that is the secret to our success.”
Only in New York, on one of the summer’s hottest days, would the chef’s special be beef stew. But at the Key West Diner (2532 Broadway at 95th St.; 212-932-0068) it’s not only the featured dish du jour, but it’s selling briskly, as is the thick, nicely seasoned minestrone, the walnut chicken mango salad and the spinach tortellini soup. Matzo ball soup is served every day, says Tony Arvanitis, who’s managed this pastel-painted spot for 11 years. There’s a table placemat with recipes and photos of drinks like pina colada and tequila sunrise, and a giant glass case shows off slabs of strawberry cheesecake and coconut lemon layer cake.
Why name it the Key West Diner?
“It’s just something a little different for New York,” says Arvanitis.
We tried the mozzarella sticks, a well-endowed platter of golden crisp, greaseless breaded cheese strips served with tomato sauce, and an ice cream soda, a generously-sized frothy concoction that could be shared by two.
One reader who called Key West “hands down the best neighborhood diner in Manhattan” rhapsodized about dishes like the raspberry-drenched blintzes, the fresh apple cinnamon French toast and the western omelets.
Adds the reader: “We have been going for several years and have never been disappointed at the Key West - the best!”1920 East Gun Hill Rd, Bronx Neighborhood News, Bronx News, Carol Stephanitsis, City Island, Jerry Stephanitsis, New York Presbyterian, Pelham Bay, Pelham Bay Diner, The Bronx Breakfast