New York City diners fight for their futures

Eisenburg's Sandwich, a diner at 5th Avenue near Flat Iron building in Manhattan is crowded during lunch time on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Changing times, rents and tastes have forced many NYC diners to close.

Eisenburg's Sandwich, a diner at 5th Avenue near Flat Iron building in Manhattan is crowded during lunch time on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015.
Eisenburg’s Sandwich, a diner at 5th Avenue near Flat Iron building in Manhattan is crowded during lunch time on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. Photo Credit: Jennifer H. Cunningham

Diners used to be the staple in nearly every city neighborhood, the perfect place for New Yorkers to find that morning omelet or 2 a.m. burger.

But changing times, rising rents and different tastes have forced many of the eateries to shut their doors after decades of service.

At least seven diners in the five boroughs that were more than 30 years old, have closed in the last year, including the Market Diner at West 43rd Street and 11th Avenue, which served its last meal last week after 53 years to make way for a 13-story mixed-use building.

Customers say they’re worried about this trend and how it could diminish the city’s eclectic food scene.

“It would suck if it were all chains. These kind of places make New York,” said Patricia Estridge, 30, of the West Village, before having lunch at Eisenberg’s on 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue on Thursday.

Some of the most prominent diners that closed in the last two years include Saint Clair in downtown Brooklyn, which was around for 93 years; Cafe Edison in midtown, which was open for 24 years; and Soup Burg, an Upper East Side staple for 51 years. 

The city’s health department didn’t have an official number of diners in the five boroughs immediately available, but food experts and historians said they’ve seen an exponential decline in the five boroughs.

Stephanie Rose Arnold, the editor of the food blog NYCTastes, said the decrease in mom-and-pop diners is part of a national trend; however, New Yorkers are feeling it more because the city historically has had a larger percentage of them. A rise in cheaper, well-known options from chains, along with online delivery sites like Seamless and GrubHub, fed the decline over the last few years.

“Every time I have a visitor come here, they stop at the Applebee’s or McDonalds, something more familiar to them. I keep telling them, ‘No, you need to check out this little place here,'” Arnold said.

Kalergis Dellaportas, the manager of the Bel Aire diner in Long Island City, acknowledged he’s had to adapt to keep up with the host of new restaurants in the area. Although customers enjoy the 17-year-old joint’s huge selection of food choices, Dellaportas said he’s at a financial disadvantage from his competitors because their menus are more specialized.

“Other small diners get 50 people a day and they’re fine. We need upward of 100 a day to keep going,” he said.

Rent and new developments are a major driving force for the closures. 

El Greco in Sheepshead Bay was sold last year after 40 years of business to make way for a new condo, while the Edison Hotel owners refused to renew their lease with Cafe Edison, opting for a Manhattan chain, Friedman’s Lunch.

“A land owner would rather rent to a [name] tenant, a drug store, a Wal-Mart,” said Bill Tsibidis, the manager of the Crossroads Diner in the Bronx, a 65-year-old eatery. “Insurance is going through the roof; everything is through the roof and there’s very little we can do about it.”

Joshua Konecky, the co-owner of Eisenberg’s, said when he bought the 86-year-old sandwich shop a decade ago, the building owners were generous when it came to leasing their space and understood the sentimental value of the place. So far, that faith and their reasonable rent has paid off, he said.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, the diner was so packed some customers were standing while eating, and many of them were in their 20s and 30s.

“When I first bought this place, it was mostly the old timers,” Konecky said. “The younger people have kept it alive.”

Even though the new blood has kept business booming, the 61-year-old owner said he has concerns about Eisenberg’s future after its lease expires in 2022, especially after seeing other high-profile diners go out of existence. Generosity, especially when it comes to building owners, isn’t strong when revenues are on the line, he said.

“You want him to be sentimental but it’s hard when the guy next door is charging four times the rent,” Konecky said.

Arnold said that aside from the city enacting regulations to curb the rising rents, owners can take charge of their future by either scaling back their menu options, at the risk of losing their appeal to eclectic tastes, or find new ways to promote themselves. Social media pages, discount offers even funny chalkboard signs inviting customers in, help spread the word.

“They need to do anything they can to draw them in,” she said.

Tsibidis agreed, and that’s why his diner instituted online ordering, catering and other new amenities.

“People right now, when they have a diner in their mind, their expectations are lower. We try to exceed expectations,” he said.

Although recent history has not been favorable toward the diners, some New Yorkers said they still have hope that the mom and pops will persevere.

Yvon Varunok, 56, a Manhattan native who works in the borough but lives in Westchester, said there’s nothing quite like the Big Apple diner experience.

“In Westchester, it all comes out of boxes. Here, the food is always fresh,” he said. “You can’t get that anywhere else, and people will come for that.”