210 10th Ave.
(at W. 22nd St.)
How do you write a review of a New York City diner? To me, any diner—even the dingiest one—is a small miracle in the preparation and production of food, as astonishing, if less theatrical, than a flagship Whole Foods.
Flipping through a typical diner menu—page after page of sandwiches, salads, hot dishes, cold dishes, souvlakis, stir fries, brunch specials, pies, all offered 24-hours a day, seven days a week—I find myself philosophizing on this wondrous age of excess we live in and the intricate web of systems—production, transportation, packaging, regulation—required to make it happen.
“Remarkable,” I find myself exclaiming to no one in particular as I bite into a soggy side order of wedge fries, speculating on the origins of the potato and how it wound up on my plate. “Simply remarkable.”
It would be tempting, then, to measure the worth of a diner empirically, counting the sheer number of plates it is capable of delivering to customers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But as any diner connoisseur knows, some diners are more appealing—and popular—than others, and their relative success can’t be explained by delivery volume alone.
Take, for example, Empire Diner in Chelsea, a sleek railcar of a space on the northeast corner of Tenth Avenue and West 22nd Street. If the typical diner is a department store, Empire Diner is more like a classy boutique, the neighborhood’s culinary equivalent of Jeffrey’s. Drawing an eclectic crowd of locals, gallery types and stylish foreigners with expensive glasses gawking at the neighborhood’s architectural transformation, Empire Diner seems constantly abuzz, a center of energy in an exceptionally energetic neighborhood.
The space is a showcase of art deco styling: a sleek black counter, as reflective as a sheet of mica, pivots into a mirrored wall. Black vinyl swivel stools crowd the bar, and a row of black tables lines the windows. A gleaming plate of silver, like the grill of a ’50s Chevy, frames a clock opposite the door.
The service is brusque and no-nonsense, but it’s never unfriendly. It’s the type of place where the staff has worked there for years and makes introductions between regular customers. And the menu, since one does, after all, go there to eat, is broad enough to suit any palate with a few surprises that elevate it above typical diner fare. Nothing beats the enormous raisin walnut scone—the size of a small cake—together with an ice coffee served in an old-fashioned milk jug. For dinner, try the vegetable and chicken stir-fry ($15).
The question of the moment, of course, is whether Empire Diner will survive the neighborhood’s rapid changes, or fall victim to the forces—escalating lease rates, a glitzier crowd—that doomed Florent 10 blocks south. In what may be a pre-emptive move, the restaurant has recently gone subtly more upscale: mod swoopy plates have replaced traditional round ones; new black umbrellas have been installed on the large patio out front (with the sun setting, the place is great for outdoor dining), and on a recent evening, flickering votives and clumps of daisies in glass vases graced the tables.
So far, the restaurant’s ability to endure looks promising. The physical space is unique—it has served as the backdrop for several recent Hollywood films—and the place is an institution. But the construction site across the seat is an ominous reminder that, for better or worse, few things in New York are held sacred.
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