NEW YORK – The Malibu Diner, 163 West 23rd Street, is in many ways like many Greek-owned diners in New York City, it has been a fixture in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan for many years in spite of the changing demographics of the area, it serves classic diner food, is open 24 hours a day, and it exemplifies the Greek tradition of hospitality and philotimo. The diner is unique for its proximity to the Selis Manor, “a roughly 200-unit apartment building that offers housing to blind, visually-impaired and disabled New Yorkers,” and for being a favorite among the blind residents who can order from the Braille menus the diner offers, as reported in the New York Times.
The blind are regulars at Malibu, which plays music outside to alert the visually-impaired customers that they’ve reached their destination.
The Times article reported that the diner and “the building for the blind appeared at about the same time — nearly four decades ago — and have been entwined ever since,” adding that “the diner opened around 1978 in a handsome brick building that had once been home to the Traffic Cafeteria (the building still bears the name).” It was first known as City Diner, but became the Malibu Diner in 1981, while “Selis Manor, which was built by a blind newsdealer named Irving M. Selis, opened in 1980,” as the Times reported.
One customer, Sharon Lash said, as reported in the Times, “Six in the morning, I’m headed to the Malibu,” as she “taps her way along 23rd Street with a white cane.”
Nearby crossing signals give sound cues “tick-tick-tick,” and “wait-wait-wait,” and “there are more service dogs than on the average block,” to aid the visually-impaired residents as they navigate the busy streets of the city, as the Times reported.
The Malibu continues the tradition of friendly service, too. Lash noted that, “I walk in there and they say, ‘Hi, Sharon,’ I know the waiters’ voices.”
George Stratis, a waiter at the Malibu said as the Times reported, “There’s a system to serve blind patrons. If a server shouts ‘no mirando,’ or ‘not seeing,’ the Spanish-speaking kitchen staff knows to chop up an order, put dressing on a salad, even sprinkle salt and pepper.”
Stratis said, as the Times reported, “They know to cut it into small pieces so they can eat it.”
Something most seeing people take for granted, cutting up food can be difficult for those born blind or who lost their sight at a young age as the Times reported and as Lash noted that “the help is welcome” even though “I can do it, but if the Malibu will do it, why should I refuse?”
On a typical day before work, Lash has breakfast at Malibu, “A variety of things with eggs,” she said as the Times reported, “And I’ve got to have my coffee.”
On weekends, she visits the diner and talks with Stratis, who has been serving her for about twenty years. Stratis said, as the Times reported, “If I say in the kitchen, ‘An order for Sharon,’ they know what to do.”
“For about five years, the diner has partnered with Visions, a nonprofit based in Selis Manor that offers services to the blind and visually-impaired: It hands out breakfast vouchers to residents of the building,” as the Times reported.
Director of caregiver and senior services at Visions, Elizabeth Lee, said as reported in the Times, that the diner “filled a huge need” for the community, “The staff are knowledgeable about the population, they’ll help them, they’ll escort them” adding that “the residents redeem around 75 breakfast vouchers a week.”
The clean and busy diner, offers the classic diner experience for all and the blind may experience the sounds of the diner more of Stratis talking with customers or another server, Agnes Khakula singing softly as she works, though “Lash dismisses the idea that blind people have better hearing than sighted people” as the Times reported, adding “That hearing stuff is a bunch of baloney. We just have to be more alert.”
The service to the community is not just about cutting up foods. The diner donated food for the residents of Selis Manor which had no elevator service during the post-Hurricane Sandy blackout that affected sections of Manhattan in 2012, as the Times reported. After last year’s Chelsea explosion when shrapnel and broken windows shook and stranded the residents again, the Malibu was a “lifesaver” Lash said, as the Times reported.
A co-owner of the Malibu, Alexandros Grimpas noted that “Governor Cuomo and the mayor came” as the Times reported, and that “Barbara, one of the blind people said, ‘We’re desperate, what are we going to do?’ They gave us the green light to coordinate with the Red Cross to bring them breakfast, lunch.’”
“The diner staff cooked and delivered hundreds of meals to their loyal customers over the next days,” the Times reported, and Lash added, “They helped us out.”