Curtain comes down on 2nd Ave. standby the Stage Restaurant

Roman Diakun in the front window of his Stage Restaurant on Second Ave. He recently announced he won’t be reopening.
Roman Diakun in the front window of his Stage Restaurant on Second Ave. He recently announced he won’t be reopening.

BY TINA BENITEZ-EVES | Lima bean soup and challah bread “was the jam,” said Jonathan Jones, a former East Villager, remembering the Stage Restaurant, which officially closed for good earlier this month.

A longtime tenant of 128 Second Ave. — Stage’s home for more than three decades — Jones was a regular customer of the Ukrainian and Polish eatery for more than a decade, and even had a signature dish made specially for him by Stage proprietor Roman Diakun.

Over the years, locals and visitors alike indulged in Stage’s pierogies — potato, cheese, beef, sauerkraut or mushroom, boiled or deep fried — made-to-order potato pancakes and red or white borscht and other soups, as well as sausage-and-tomato sandwiches, omelets, meatloaf, stuffed cabbage and beets, plus French toast or grilled cheese on challah bread, cheese and blueberry blintzes and an array of other specialty Eastern European and American dishes dreamed up by Diakun since his opening the Stage back in 1980.

On March 2, generations of Stage patrons learned that the restaurant, which has been closed for nearly a year following a lengthy legal battle with landlord Icon Realty Management, would never open again.

“It is with bittersweet emotions that we at Stage Restaurant are announcing that we are closing our doors permanently after 35 amazing years,” Diakun said. “The events of the year have been overwhelmingly devastating on us, and we have decided to close the Stage’s door.”

“It’s terrible,” said John Serdula, a longtime tenant who heads the building’s tenants association. “It was a focal point for the community of the East Village. Everybody went there. All the people from Cooper Union — artists ate there all the time. Every time I say I live next door to ‘Stomp,’ people will say, ‘Oh, you live near Stage?’ It has such a huge following.”

Diakun, who also lives upstairs from Stage at 128 Second Ave., addressed the ongoing legal dispute with Icon, which started days after the Second Ave. gas explosion on March 26, 2015, which leveled three buildings, 119, 121 and 123 Second Ave.

Four days after the catastrophe, the restaurant was shut down, following a Con Edison investigation that revealed alleged gas siphoning in the building’s basement. This resulted in a gas shutoff — resulting in no heat or hot water for the building’s tenants for months — and the Department of Buildings issuing a stop-work order against Stage on any work in the basement. Icon issued Stage an eviction notice on April 13, and the restaurant sued the landlord to stop the process.

Diakun has been fairly quiet, rarely speaking to the press since Stage’s closing last spring.

In his Facebook post last week, he wrote, “Over the past year, we have resolved our dispute with the landlord. Stage Restaurant never engaged in any wrongdoing; however, after our prolonged closure and because of the cost to make the repairs and expenses of reopening, we are sad to say that the Stage cannot reopen.”

Nearly one year later, Diakun is tired, and the legal battles and the loss of money have taken a toll, according to Serdula, who ran into the Stage owner shortly after he had officially handed the restaurant’s keys over to Icon. Serdula said Diakun told him he had two more years on the lease but decided to close.

“I could tell that he’s depressed,” said Serdula, who also leads Icon Coalition, a group of tenants dealing with ongoing issues with the Iandlord. “It’s been one year since he’s been put under pressure by Icon and he couldn’t make any money during it.”

Serdula added that Icon did not allow Diakun to go into the basement to have his gas lines fixed, so that he could reopen his business, and was also trying to raise the restaurateur’s rent, plus is now allegedly harassing the longtime tenant, alleging that a downstairs neighbor is complaining of noise in his apartment.

“He’s furious,” Serdula said. “He should have fought more to keep the restaurant. I could understand it. You win this battle, then there’s another battle — and another and another. It’s too exhausting.”

Chris Coffey, an Icon representative, told The Villager that there were no rent increases for the Stage restaurant and that things ended amicably in court with Diakun.

“The lease was expired, but they were welcome to stay there,” said Coffey, adding that Icon hopes to get a suitable tenant that has the character of the East Village. “Icon wishes them the best…whatever they decide to do. They were welcome to come back, but made the decision not to reopen.”

Landlord issues aside, patrons will always remember what Stage was all about, whether borscht or an American cheese grilled on some challah with butter. For Serdula, it was all about Stage’s chicken soup.

“When you’re sick and don’t feel like making anything and just want soup, you just had to go downstairs and say, ‘Can I have some soup?’ ” he said. “The pierogies were great, too. All the food was good. The challah bread was fantastic.”

Serdula and Jones remembered Diakun’s good nature and how he looked out for the building’s older tenants by bringing them food every day at no charge.

“He never announced it,” Serdula said. “He just did it, no charge. It’s a really nice thing to do.”

Now, Stage sits vacant in the ground floor of No. 128. The restaurant gate is up, though, and passersby can look in at the kitchen, the line of red stools and the formica-topped counter, with napkins, salt and pepper and other condiments still in place, as if Stage will open any day now. There are even a few specials still listed in the window.

“Thank you all for your support, your signatures, your donations, and especially your kind words,” Diakun added in his Facebook goodbye. “We could not have realized our passion and love for nourishing and providing a place of comfort and gathering to the community without you all. Your loyalty, support, kindness and love have been a true blessing, and something we will never forget.”

Jones, who moved to Virginia last fall following a lengthy court battle with Icon, still will always remember that one special dish at Stage.

“Roman used to make me an egg-and-cheese on challah with potatoes and grits inside,” said Jones, who added that Diakun’s portions and prices were a steal. “This was a special he came up with for me. I have been dreaming about missing this egg-and-cheese special. I sure would have loved to have one this morning.”