Where Have All the Diners Gone?

The Empire Diner in Chelsea, New York
The Empire Diner in Chelsea, New York | © Quentin Bacon
Rachel Gould

Art & Design Editor

On a downtown street corner saturated with the shadowy azures of vacant storefronts, a late-night diner hosts three nocturnal customers. Theirs is a peculiar and disjointed congregation without narrative or context, but the iconic tableau, titled Nighthawks (1942) and painted by American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967), has endured as a classic image of World War II-era New York City.

In a way, Hopper’s portrayal is timeless: three-quarters of a century later, diners are still hosting night owls. But these venues are vanishing – a 2015 Crain’s article informed by the New York City department of health reported that diners had seen a 60 percent decline in the previous 25 years – due to rising rents and discerning millennial palates vetoing greasy-spoon fare.

Nighthawks is said to embody the loneliness of the city, which becomes lonelier still each time another diner shuts its doors. But two Manhattan locales, the classic all-night Waverly Diner and the newly revived Empire Diner, continue to serve their communities with pride, employing different approaches but with complementary principles of good food and warm hospitality.

‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper

Greenwich Village, 1942

Fluorescent light illuminates a fire-haired woman next to a suited man, a diner waiter half-facing the pair, and a third man lost in thought with his back to the viewer. The brilliant luminosity of this meticulous composition is visually commanding; yet Hopper’s odd birds – all disjointed from one another to varying degrees – fail to satisfy the viewer with any form of acknowledgment. Nighthawks is at once a captivating glimpse of a classic New York night and a cold snapshot of urban alienation after dark.

Few artists have captured the loneliness of New York City as Hopper did. Born in the Hudson River-adjacent town of Nyack, New York, he studied under the illustrious American Ashcan School painter Robert Henri. Henri’s tutelage influenced Hopper’s oeuvre of remote figures awash in the landscapes of their thoughts and physical environments, some solitary, others side by side with fellow subjects simultaneously adrift in introspection. Hopper’s humans embody a subtle, creeping desolation, a time-honored condition that so many New Yorkers can relate to.

A man crosses Gay Street at Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, 1945

When Hopper painted Nighthawks in the early 1940s, diners were still on the rise to becoming a well-established part of the local culture. While historians have yet to settle on a conclusive timeline, it’s believed that Greek-American families, struggling to make a living in the early years of the 20th century, found work performing menial duties in luncheonettes and other eateries. Years of hard labor in pursuit of the American dream led to their eventual diner ownership. Following the Great Depression, diners offered inexpensive fare to a poverty-stricken nation. But the diner’s heyday wouldn’t come until after the war, when American servicemen returned home with a new lease on life and money to spend. The diner evolved into a local fixture – a New York City microcosm with a thriving subculture all its own.

Ironically, Nighthawks defies the diner’s history as the social heart of the community.

Greenwich Village, 2018

On the corner of Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place, a neon sign beckons patrons inside Waverly Diner. The feel of night at this 24-hour joint is not one of loneliness or desolation. Quite the contrary; the scene is inviting, and outsiders are welcome. A warm glow illuminates the diner’s interior, where the hum of conversation and the clamor of utensils ring out. No sparse countertops or cold shoulders here.

Located in a landmark building, the Waverly was founded by Nicholas (Nick) Serafis some 40-odd years ago. He purchased the space when it was a modest café, expanded it and transformed it into a classic Greek diner. By his calculations, approximately 90 percent of the diner’s customer base consists of regulars who live in or near the neighborhood, a significant number of whom have been returning to the diner since the 1970s.

Day or night, the Waverly is abuzz. “The nighttime is happier,” Serafis said. “More energetic.” The Waverly’s after-hours customer base has always consisted of late-night workers gathering for a meal at the close of their shift. They still flock to the diner – it’s always open, and going there is practically a ritual – though nowadays, the wee hours also find there a younger set of patrons: a sprinkling of NYU students, a smattering of bar-hoppers. Otherwise, according to Serafis, not much has changed.

The Waverly Diner in the West Village is open 24/7

The Waverly is not the venue that Hopper painted, but as it’s a 24-hour Greenwich Avenue-adjacent diner, the sentiment is a similar one. Hopper’s diner “was suggested by a restaurant on Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,” the artist told an interviewer. He later said, “I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger.”

Pre-eminent Hopper scholar Gail Levin has pinpointed Mulry Square – a triangular plot of land near the Waverly Diner where Greenwich Avenue, Seventh Avenue and 11th Street intersect – as the most likely location of Hopper’s hang-out. Historian and writer Jeremiah Moss subsequently analyzed old maps and archival images and came to the conclusion that Hopper’s diner may well have been inspired by Mulry Square, but it was likely an amalgamation of buildings filtered through Hopper’s vivid imagination.

“It seems the longer you live in New York, the more you love a city that has vanished,” Moss wrote in a New York Times article, referring not only to his epiphany that the Nighthawks diner was probably never there, but to the nostalgia of the New York diner as a quickly fading symbol of the city’s storied past.

As is the case with most long-standing neighborhood diners, the Waverly faces an uncertain future; but it’s found success in three principal factors. First and foremost is the food, which is made with as much devotion as it is with fresh ingredients. The entire menu – which runs the gamut from omelettes to pancakes and all the hearty fare you’d expect from a Greek diner – consists of Serafis’s personal recipes. They are family recipes, mostly, some his own and a few adapted from those of friends and neighbors.

Then there’s the atmosphere. The approach is simple: good food and good service keep customers returning. The interior space was renovated in 2011, but the Waverly has maintained a traditional aesthetic of wood paneling and vinyl booths. It’s not your typical retro diner – sleek, metal accents, pops of neon. Rather, it’s reminiscent of the city’s humble working-class days. It always has been and, as long as Serafis is around, will continue to be a place of convergence for no-fuss Villagers and tourists who’ve heard tell of the diner’s classic charms.

Finally, the Waverly strikes a balance between tradition and the inevitable tides of change. The menu has remained mostly the same, save a selection of necessary revisions throughout the years. Taking note of fan favorites and removing some of the items that consistently don’t sell, the Waverly has managed to keep up with contemporary diets without sacrificing Serafis’s vision.

So the Waverly remains a stronghold. The “stubborn holdout of the old-school Village” was ranked first on Time Out New York’s most recent list of the best diners in New York City and 17th on its list of America’s best diners. The Waverly’s reputation now precedes the brick-and-mortar establishment, and management is confident in the diner’s continuity.*

Chelsea, 2018

Some 20 blocks north of the Waverly, on 10th Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Streets, the Empire is one of New York’s few remaining free-standing diners. Visitors may recognize its sleek, Art Deco facade from a long list of films, television shows and advertisements – from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) to Law and Order and the opening credits for Saturday Night Live.

The Empire is one of NYC’s last free-standing diners

The Empire has a complicated history of staccato ownership. According to Untapped Cities, the diner was constructed by the New Jersey-based Fodero Dining Car Company in 1946. Its initial run lasted until 1976, when it closed its doors for the first time. The building was resurrected by three New Yorkers: Jack Doenias, Carl Laanes and Richard Ruskay, who re-opened it to the public, with Bette Davis, David Bowie and Debbie Harry figuring among the wildly popular institution’s roster of loyal patrons in its second chapter.

“In the ’80s, the diner was a mecca for late-night musicians, artists and party crawlers,” said chef John DeLucie, who unveiled the new and improved Empire Diner in 2017. (Between 2010 and 2015, the diner was passed from owner to owner in a series of short-lived attempts at a revival). “The neighborhood has changed drastically, with new condominiums and renovations to old buildings rehabbed into huge lofts. Couple that with new restaurants, stores and art galleries, and you’ve got yourself a different world in West Chelsea.”

The Empire Diner before its most recent renovation

A native New Yorker, DeLucie has been cooking for his home town since 1991. Alongside the Empire, he’s also run the beloved Waverly Inn, The Lion and Bedford & Co., another revived “retreat of the lost generation,” which is located in the Renwick Hotel. DeLucie’s culinary penchants are inspired by his nostalgia for the city’s good old days, so it’s fitting that he would buy up one of Chelsea’s legendary gastronomical institutions.

“Diner food is simple, accessible and always comfortable. I love diner culture. I grew up eating in diners with my parents,” DeLucie said. “But I think that the food quality [can] leave a lot to be desired.” With what he calls “elevated American comfort food” – think a traditional diner omelette upgraded with fine herbs and boursin – the Empire is a modernized version of the classic diner vision. It employs the same basic principles as the Waverly – good food, good service and a comfortable environment – but it caters to the contemporary customer who expects nothing less than a “curated and elegant” dining experience.

The Empire has a new look

The Empire does, of course, host baby boomers and gen Xers with stories to tell, but the late-night crowd, DeLucie said, is a bit younger and “seemingly more adventurous.” They visit the diner, open until 1am every night, after taking in an evening exhibition preview at the nearby galleries or participating in Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel.

Indeed, DeLucie’s view of Chelsea is notably different from Serafis’s perception of the Village. Their perspectives are likely informed by the differences in their respective diners’ timelines. The Waverly has had an uninterrupted four-decade run, while the Empire has evolved through multiple iterations. Their approaches to running a restaurant are decidedly different too, but both diner owners are dedicated to the same mission.

“In New York, we all live right on top of each other, but people rarely know their neighbors,” DeLucie said. “In the burbs, you say hi over the fence in the backyard. In the city, you say hi at the diner.” The working-class meatpacker days are mostly over in Chelsea, a neighborhood that transformed years ago into one of Manhattan’s trendiest, most expensive areas. But if anything, the city’s increased exclusivity has made the need for down-home diners even more pressing.

Statistically, it seems that the days of the New York City diner face an untimely end. Nighthawks, this sinister image of isolation laid bare by Hopper’s poignant depiction of disconnected people, moves further into the distance with each diner’s closing, an elegy to the New York nights of yore. Yet the degradation of diner culture resurrects Nighthawks as more of a prophecy than a relic. It’s a vision of what New York will become without diners.

“I think the city, having lived here my whole life, can be lonely and isolating,” DeLucie supposes. “The purpose of the diner is to relieve that loneliness and isolation. You walk in; someone smiles at you; you sit at the counter and order a burger with a glass of beer – suddenly life doesn’t seem so bad.”

The Empire Diner’s current facade

With additional reporting by Amber C. Snider

*In April 2018, it was reported that the Waverly filed for bankruptcy protection following two controversial lawsuits over its alleged failure to pay employees their due overtime. The diner will reportedly remain open until further notice.

Waverly Diner, 385 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10014

Empire Diner, 210 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10011

This story is part of the Culture Trip collection New York After Dark.

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