Today, the area around 10th Avenue in Chelsea is defined by the High Line. But in the decades before the High Line opened to the public, the neighborhood was better known for its art galleries — and for the Empire Diner.
With its chrome exterior, the Empire State Building model on its roof, innovative cuisine and music played on an upright piano, the Empire, at 22nd Street and Eighth Avenue, was a fixture of Chelsea life from the 1970s until the early 2000s. But the diner has closed three times in the last six years, and as of this writing, there are few clues about its future.
Originally, the Empire Diner was a “regular” New York City diner, serving typical diner fare. The diner was built in 1946 by the Fodero Dining Car Corp., a New Jersey company that was responsible for many of the diners in the Northeast. As a diner on the far West Side in those days, it certainly served factory and warehouse workers as well as those who worked on the docks.
It was closed at some point before being refurbished and reopened in 1976. At that time, it was rehabilitated by new owners Jack Doenias, Carl Laanes and Richard Ruskay into something quite different. A June 1976 New York Times review of the recently-opened Empire reveals that it began specializing in nouvelle cuisine such as leaf spinach in a nest of alfalfa sprouts with minced bacon, and spareribs with noodles accompanied by asparagus served in a lemon dressing.
The reviewer, John Canaday, also wrote that it appeared that “the median age of the diners is no more than 30,” and that many of them probably came there after going to late-night clubs. It also said that the Empire was certainly one of the noisiest restaurants around — something my father also remarked upon about when he visited in the 1990s.
I first started going there in 1996, and find that Canaday’s description held true into the 1990s and 2000s (although by that time, you could add art galleries to late-night clubs). Among my favorite dishes were Asian stir-fry with tofu and lentil burgers with horseradish sauce. At least at one point, it didn’t carry artificial sweeteners or diet soda — something that made my Overeaters Anonymous-going friend, who had to go next door to get Sweet ‘N Low, rather upset.
The Empire also made its mark in popular culture. It was shown in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” According to a statement issued by the diner’s then-management when it first closed in 2010, in its heyday it served “Chelsea residents, actors, police commissioners, athletes, gangsters, such luminaries as Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and anyone carrying a New York City Guide Book.”
The Times reported in 2005 that after Rukay and Doenias died, Laanes sold the operation to executive chef Mitchell Woo and general manager Renate Gonzalez, both of whom had been with the diner for many years. In late 2009, however, there were reportedly problems in lease negotiations between the diner owners and the owners of the property. There was no lease renewal and the Empire Diner, in its most famous incarnation, closed in May 2010.
Later that same year, the diner was taken over by a new group and renamed the Highliner, but that incarnation was short-lived. In January 2014, it was taken over by a team that included Amanda Freitag as executive chef. It was once again called the Empire Diner, although it had a different menu than the original. However, Freitag stepped away from the kitchen at the Empire in July 2015 to focus on her book and her TV work.
The new Empire closed in December 2015. Freitag told DNAinfo that, “I would love to do something in the neighborhood because it’s still growing and wonderful, but ... the rents are unmanageable.”
When I took a walk over to the Empire in late January, the blinds were drawn and the door locked. Through one window, one could still glimpse the intact counter and tables, as well as a sign advertising different types of craft beer.
Alex Herrera, director of technical services for the New York Landmarks Conservancy, an advocacy group that seeks to preserve the city’s architectural heritage, thinks the Empire Diner would be a good candidate for landmarking by the city. “There are already diners on the National Registry of Historic Places,” he said.
Hererra said the diner is already a landmark with a small “l”: “You see it, and you already know where you are.” However, he said, the real estate pressure on sites in the area of the diner, given today’s market, is intense, unlike the environment 10 or 20 years ago, when 10th Avenue was a “sleepy” area.
Will the Empire Diner be saved — or reopened? We’ll have to wait and see.