Feb 22, 2017, 07:02AM

A Remembrance of Diners Past

Everyone raise a coffee mug.

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I’ve always had an affinity for diners, not only for the relatively simple and affordable fare served in most of them (though that's beginning to change), but also for the architecture and even the neighborhoods they're in. One of my favorite surviving diners is in the hinterlands of Maspeth, Queens (interior shown above), and was known as Clinton Diner until a few years ago, in honor of De Witt Clinton, who held every important office in New York State and New York City in the postcolonial era, and who maintained a mansion nearby; it was renamed Goodfellas Diner because scenes from the Scorsese movie were filmed there.

During my last visit, I noticed excerpts from my book Forgotten New York on the menu. However, after a hearty lunch, the blood once again started dripping down my head, and my lunch companion called the EMTs to whisk me off to Elmhurst Hospital. No, I had not been clubbed by a Goodfella. I had tripped about an hour earlier and cracked my noggin on the railing of the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge that crosses the noxious and noisome Newtown Creek, and the jaw movements caused by my enthusiastic chewing had once again opened the wound. I was sewn up and sent home a few hours later.

The Clinton—it'll always be the Clinton to me—is set along a busy truck route called Rust Street, whose name is oddly appropriate in this still heavily industrialized part of town. There are railroad tracks running alongside the road and freights occasionally rumble through. Until about a decade ago, a historic Episcopal church, St. Saviour’s, stood nearby, as it had since 1847. After the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission declined to designate it (they have complicated and political reasons for designation and non-designation) the old church was disassembled and waits in storage for what is hoped to be an eventual restoration.

My favorite diners are standalone buildings as opposed to those occupying ground floors of apartments (Tom’s Restaurant, for example, made famous by Seinfeld and the Suzanne Vega hit). And of those standalone diners my favorites are the original diners designed to look like railroad passenger cars. Though none remain in NYC, the very first diners were indeed retired railroad passenger cars, and older designs hewed close to that model.

One of those railroad car diners was the Cheyenne, which used to reside at the NW corner of 9th Avenue and West 33rd Street. It was built as the Market Diner by Paramount Modular Concepts of Oakland, NJ, and until its closing day in 2008 retained its original all-stainless-steel exterior, distinctive curved roofline, and rounded glass block corners that were hallmarks of the manufacturer.

Like most neighborhood diners it was open 24/7. The Cheyenne served travelers en route to the Lincoln Tunnel as well as workers in the James Farley Post Office Building across the street. Though the Post Office was moving most operations into the Morgan facility a few blocks south, the Cheyenne seemed to be attracting as much business as it ever did; I worked two blocks away in the Macy’s offices and ate there frequently. Nevertheless, the owner, who also maintains the Starlight on West 34th, deemed the site redundant and sold the property, which stood empty for a good part of the next decade until a residential building began construction in 2016.

In 2007, I moved to Little Neck when I purchased an apartment that had more space than any I had lived in previously. Little Neck is in northeast Queens, the last neighborhood in Queens before you reach Nassau traveling east. Unfortunately, it has ceded most of its personality to neighboring regions like Bayside or Great Neck. Its center, the intersection of Northern Boulevard and Little Neck Parkway, was punctuated for decades by the Scobee Diner. I’d be a weekly customer in my booth by the window, slowly working on dinner and watching the cars go by. Many of my fellow customers were older than me, and I'm grasping the last few straws of my youth at this point. As a rule, most booths and seats were full, though there was no one waiting by the door for seats.

The business model worked since the 1960s. But things changed for the Scobee. The owner’s children wished to do other things, and the property landlord raised the rent. The Scobee closed in November 2010, and the disposal of the property has been glacial. The old diner building stood for two years, then it was razed, leaving an empty lot for two more. Finally, a structure was constructed that stood empty for two more years after that. At length, in 2016 it was announced that the building had a tenant: a coffee shop. Back to square one.

I had known of the Market Diner on 11th Avenue and West 43rd for several years before I went in for a meal. Like the Scobee it opened in the early '60s, with a distinctive polygonal-shaped design by the De Raffele Diner Company. This classic was one of three diners along the same stretch of 11th Avenue and the last to succumb, in November 2015. The others were railroad car diner the River, where John Lennon was photographed in the late 1970s, and the Munson on West 49th, where scenes from Seinfeld were filmed.

The Market appeared as if it belonged in Las Vegas and you expected the Rat Pack to stagger through the door after an all-nighter at 6 am. The diner rented its space from a real estate company called the Moinian Group, which had purchased the plot in 2004, but until 2015 had not had the capital ready to build what it wanted all along: a 13-story mixed use building, which has now appeared on the site.

There are several remaining classics around town, such as the Empire on 10th Avenue and West 22nd in Chelsea. A string of various owners has tried to make a go of it there with upscale menus, which has been a trend with diners for awhile but never seems to work in the long term. One of my remaining favorites is the Square Diner, which is in a very small rectangular building at Varick and Leonard in Tribeca. Diners, as popular as they appear to be, are perpetually on the chopping block. Enjoy them while you can.

Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens


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