New York diners are an iconic symbol of the American dining experience. For the last half century at least, diners have been a staple of the Greek immigrant experience as well.
Staffing and owning diners was a natural extension of the world-famous Greek hospitality. As many diner-goers over the years noted, Greeks took over the diners and kept the “American” menu, adding their own specialties and expanding the culinary offerings with the tastes of home.
Books have been written about diners and diner culture. On television, where would Seinfeld and company have lunch and discuss “nothing” without the classic New York diner Monk’s Cafe? The sitcom itself was thought up in just such a coffee shop.
The rising cost of real estate in recent years has been hard on the often family-owned diners of New York City.
Many have shut down permanently due to changing neighborhood demographics and eating habits. Gentrification in many areas has been tough on diners and coffee shops.
As reported in the New York Times, there are about half as many diners today as there were 20 years ago, according to records from the health department.
Among the diners that closed in recent years, Cafe Edison shut down in 2014 after 34 years in business renting space from the Edison Hotel at 228 West 47th Street in Manhattan. In 2015, Market Diner closed its doors after 53 years in Hell’s Kitchen.
The beloved Lyric Diner closed in 2016 after 31 years at Third Avenue and 22nd Street in Gramercy. Owner George Kalogerakos decided to retire, the real estate broker told DNA info.
Kalogerakos had briefly closed Lyric to open the more formal Greek restaurant Taverna in the same location, but reopened the diner after about a year.
The diner was a favorite in the neighborhood, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and offering a 10% discount to students showing their school ID. Also among the closures in 2016, was Del Rio after 40 years in Bensonhurst.
As costs continue to rise in Queens as well, Astoria may soon say goodbye to the neighborhood fixtures like the iconic Neptune and Bel Aire.
What would it mean for New York to lose its diner culture? As the Times noted, “losing New York diner culture would probably be a watershed in the city’s history. How will New Yorkers get along without these antidotes to urban loneliness?”
Blogger Jeremiah Moss of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York told the Times that “the coffee shop orients us here, in this city and not another. If we are regulars, we become known, connected, to a network of people who remain over the span of years, even decades. In the anonymous city, these ties can be lifesavers, especially for the elderly, the poor, the marginal, but also for all of us. Without them, the city becomes ever more fragmented, disorienting and unrecognizable.”
For those of us with relatives and friends in the diner business, we know that the diner provides a great service to the community that chains like Starbucks can never provide.
The diner is a microcosm with several languages spoken by the people that work and frequent it.
The immigrants passing through on their way to the American dream have left their mark on the institution.
A veritable United Nations makes up the staff of a diner with people from Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Mexico, Poland, and Romania working together and making tourists from around the world who stop in and the regulars feel at home in the Big Apple. Many Greek-Americans still own the diners their families opened years ago.
Fanis Tsiamtsiouris, known as Frank, and Fotios Hilas own the Metro located at Broadway and 100th Street, along with three other diners.
Tsiamtsiouris consolidated five stores, including a kosher butcher, a copy store, and a Cuban-Chinese restaurant to open the Metro Diner in 1989.
Since then, the owners calculated that the diner has poured about 700 cups of coffee, made 150 hamburgers, and used over 1,200 eggs every day, as the Times reported.
Historians offer differing accounts of how and when Greek immigrants first got into the diner business, but they agree that the post-World War II years saw a marked increase in the number of Greek-owned diners.
The classic immigrant story of working long hours with the help of families and associations formed the basis of success for many in the business.
Tsiamtsiouris told the Times, “When my family came over in 1967, we had an $8,000 debt to pay, so we all went to work.”
He noted, “So first I was a cleanup guy, then busboy, then a waiter, then a manager.” He had one uncle in the business when he started out, he observed, and he met many other owners through Pan Gregorian, a food industry cooperative.
The Metro is also a repository of New York history. One of the few wood-frame buildings left in Manhattan, it was built by grocer Henry Grimm in 1871.
Brewer Peter Doelger bought the building in 1894 and opened a restaurant and saloon. The building also housed a milliner’s shop, a tearoom and, in the 1950s, the rehearsal studio and offices of the avant-garde Living Theater.