BY HEATHER DUBIN | There is a new diner in Chelsea, whose buttermilk pancakes and moussaka taste very familiar. And that is no accident. The Rail Line Diner, located on 23rd Street near Ninth Avenue, is under the same ownership as its former incarnation — the Moonstruck Diner — in that exact spot.
Teddy Nictas, the owner, recently took a break from greeting customers and running the show to sit down in a booth by the entrance and talk about The Rail Line Diner.
“I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on the design and layout,” he said, “There used to be a showcase blocking the window, and you couldn’t see inside the store. Now, it’s more open.”
The diner has a decidedly modern look, with 21 booths that line the perimeter, tables in the middle, banquettes and five bar stools at a counter where muffins and cakes are displayed. The approximate 3,200-square-foot space seats 167 people.
Nictas, who is originally from Manhattan, lives on Long Island with his family. Prior to the restaurant industry, Nictas worked in construction and the painting business. Following a two-year stint at his brother-in-law’s restaurant, Nictas branched out on his own to take over the Moonstruck Diner in 1997.
He purchased the restaurant, which was the original Moonstruck Diner, founded circa 1987, from Greek owners. Nictas, 45, whose parents moved here from Greece, speaks Greek, and is a first-generation American. His son and nephew both work at the diner, making it a family affair.
This past summer, Nictas embarked on a three and a half month renovation to update the diner décor. “The store was rundown,” he said. Nictas felt like he could not keep coming to work and see the diner in its previous condition.
“You have to go with the neighborhood,” Nictas said. And Chelsea, along with most of Manhattan, has experienced drastic changes over the past 15 years such as an influx of luxury apartments and pricey commercial real estate.
Nictas waited a few years to secure a new-13 year lease, and then began construction a year after signing it. According to Nictas, people commented on websites that the Moonstruck Diner’s prominent color palette of peach and gray was in sync with the aesthetic of “The Golden Girls” — the classic television series about female senior citizens. The renovation has eradicated that association, replacing it with a sleek, airy feel that is more tropical oasis than Florida retirement community,
On September 30, the diner relaunched with a new and improved look, but the menu and staff were mostly the same. Now, The Rail Line Diner is ready to reclaim Moonstruck’s regulars.
“A customer came in who hadn’t been in for awhile. He thought I’d sold the diner because of the name change,” Nictas said. He has only had a few months to gage customer traffic, but Nictas noted many other locals also thought they had “sold out.”
However, Nictas remains optimistic. “Every week it’s a little different. It takes time to build up a business,” he said, “I take the good with the bad.”
Nictas has witnessed customer shifts over the years in Chelsea, since 1997. From 1999 to 2005, business was thriving — and then it began to taper off. Once the recession hit in 2007 and 2008, the diner experienced a decline.
“Now there are not as many steady customers,” he said. Nictas attributes this to out-of-town visitors, and apartment owners nearby, some of whom are European and do not stay in the city very often.
“I have my steadies though, I’ve got to say,” he said. With a grin, he confirmed these “steadies” mostly belong to the senior citizen set. “They’re the best because they never complain. They’re all my girlfriends,” he joked, “I talk to them like they’re my grandmas.”
Nictas noted that about seventy percent of his “steadies” live close by, at Penn South on 26th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, a housing cooperative, and London Terrace, a block-long apartment complex on 24th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. “They’ve been coming here before I was an owner here,” he said.
The diner is open seven days a week, and is 24-hours on Friday and Saturday. The club crowd around the corner in the Meatpacking district on weekends does not necessarily make The Rail Line Diner their destination.
“Lots of kids these days like to eat dinner and disco,” Nictas said. He explained that at Bagatelle, a bistro in the Meatpacking district, they play music while everyone eats. “It’s like a disco,” he added.
Typical customers at the diner include residents, and workers in the area at public schools, Local 601, Hugo Boss and Martha Stewart. Nictas also noted they get a lot of diners from people walking to galleries nearby, and food deliveries to gallery workers.
There is also a large gay clientele from the neighborhood, and a mixed younger generation representing a new demographic in the vicinity.
Celebrities have made guest appearances when it was the Moonstruck Diner, such as singer Lady Gaga and actors — including Meg Ryan, Lorraine Bracco and the late James Gandolfini. So far, The Rail Line Diner has attracted actor Taye Diggs and his wife.
“I’m on Facebook, I’m on Twitter, and it’s word of mouth,” Nictas said. He is mostly reliant on the latter method to increase business. Nictas estimates he has about 400 customers a day.
“Each day is different. Sometimes Friday and Saturday night is busy; weekends are busy. Yesterday, [Monday], lunch was quiet, today was busy. It depends on people and shopping,” he said.
Nictas has had to raise his prices 10 percent on the average. “The price of food has gone up through the roof,” he said.
The food and the staff — 80 percent returned post-renovation — might help maintain the lure of the diner. There are 36 employees on staff, and Nictas considers them like family.
“I was closed for three months. I floated loans to them. One of my managers, he worked with me for 12 years. He needed it for kids for school. I treat my guys like family,” Nictas said. This year, he gave all of his employees a turkey for Thanksgiving.
John, Nictas’s son, created “The Rail Line Sandwich,” which is a chicken cutlet with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto and roasted pepper on a hero. “He comes up with things even if they’re not on the menu, he’ll make off-menu stuff,” Nictas said.
Other menu highlights include Pastichio, a Greek baked pasta dish with ground meat and béchamel sauce, French toast, and waffles. Branzino fish, and French fries with the skin, crispy or fried, are also favorites for Nictas.
He is in the process of bringing in a baker, but for now, dessert is from a bakery in The Bronx with seven-layer cake, cheesecake and red velvet cake as top-sellers. Nictas likes red velvet best since his daughter, who started baking at age eight, always makes it for special occasions, including his birthday, which is on New Year’s Eve.
With a new look for The Rail Line Diner, Nictas, his employees, and his family, have lots to celebrate the year ahead.
In a separate phone interview, Nick Mavromichalis, manager and co-owner of the Chelsea Square Restaurant, spoke about his diner, which is located across the street from The Rail Line Diner on Ninth Avenue.
John Lapsatis and John Boumakis, who are both Greek, are the original owners of the 33-year-old diner. When Boumakis retired, Mavromichalis, also Greek, stepped in for his father-in-law, two years ago this December.
Open 24-hours, seven days a week, this family style diner with Greek and Italian specialties has its share of local residents, travelers and movie stars as patrons.
The entire restaurant is framed with autographed photos of sports figures, like Mike Tyson, actors and soap opera stars that line the old style wooden walls. There is also ample space with plenty of booths and tables that surround them to accommodate a total of 130 people in the diner.
The regulars at the Chelsea Square Restaurant go way back to when the diner was established. “We have regulars from when we first opened, who sit down and pour their own coffee, and change the television to what they want,” Mavromichalis said.
He elaborated that many of these regulars are senior citizens, and one woman, who Mavromichalis knows from when he was a child, pours her own coffee. Another woman gets her own tea, and changes the channel on the television to watch stock reports. “All shapes and sizes come in here,” he added.
The diner also attracts seniors from Penn South and London Terrace. “There used to be more, but a lot of have passed away over the years,” Mavromichalis said.
Club kids are less of a frequent occurrence since there are fewer nightclubs in the area now. The diner hosts some club kids at night, but not nearly as many as they did before.
Many regulars hail from the neighborhood. “The diner hasn’t changed since we’ve been here,” Mavromichalis said, “They like the place, it’s still old fashioned. We have cooks in the kitchen from when we first opened. Nothing’s different.”
There are close to 40 employees, and many of the kitchen staff has worked there for over 25 years.
Standouts on the menu include fish platters, chicken marsala, and steaks, along with typical diner fare. “Everything’s above average diner food. You go to places, they can’t do the toast right. Here the omelets are huge. The portions are very big here,” Mavromichalis said.
Mavromichalis, 38, has worked in the food business for 18 years. “I grew up in Astoria, and I’ve been to a lot of diners. This one is the friendliest, and a cozy atmosphere that people want to come back to,” he said. Mavromichalis noted that he has customers from Florida who travel to Manhattan once a year, and always come back to the diner to eat.
They might return just for Saturdays around 12:30pm, when a man who has worked at the diner for 25 years throws a little panache into the mix. “It’s an old style of ordering tickets into the kitchen, he yells it out, and throws in a couple of Greek words in there that people find amusing,” Mavromichalis said.
He admitted that there is a lot of competition in Chelsea, especially in the diner arena. “There are lots of options to go to,” Mavromichalis said, “But once in awhile people like to duck in here and have a nice dinner, and leave here with a smile.”