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Classic Manhattan Diners Fear for Survival After Recent Closures

By Rosa Goldensohn | February 23, 2015 8:49am
 Workers at some decades-old institutions say business has declined over the years.
Survival of the Manhattan Coffee Shop
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MIDTOWN — Two traditional Manhattan diners, Cafe Edison and La Parisienne, have closed since December, along with the Upper West Side’s Three Star last year. The closures sparked fear that the city diner — the vinyl-boothed institution where regulars can nurse a coffee for hours — is endangered.

Managers and workers at some city standbys that are still hanging on told DNAinfo New York that business had declined over the years, and said they worried that rent hikes would drive them under as well.

“Landlords get greedy,” said Jimmy, the manager of the Applejack Diner on Broadway near West 55th Street, who like many employees interviewed for this story declined to give his last name.  He feared that a bank or pharmacy could vie for the diner's spot and get the Applejack evicted. “Try to get a long-term lease before [the rent] goes up,” he advised.

Even better, be your own landlord.

The owner of the 55-year-old Waverly Restaurant on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village also owns the building, according to manager John Captan. Were it not for that, Captan said he doubted the diner would have survived.

“All I hear is that there is no diners in New York City anymore, that’s what people say,” Captan said from behind the cash register at the restaurant. “Less and less diners every year in New York. I think it’s because of the high rent.”

New York diners, where menus are huge and unchanging, are vulnerable “because they cook a lot,” Captan said. At the Waverly Restaurant, open 24 hours, everything is made in-house, Captan said, from soups to specials. 

“We cut the steaks here,” he said.

The Waverly has five cooks on at a time. “Over here, you cannot hire just anyone," Captan said, "and when they know how to do the job, you have to pay them better than basics."

He said chain restaurants have lower payroll costs because many don't cook food from scratch. “All they do is warm it up," he said.

Captan said the restaurant has made some changes to keep up with the times, adding a credit card machine two years ago and accepting Seamless orders online. 

But at the Viand on East 61st Street, the staff still only takes cash “and Rolex,” joked manager John. He said business had slowed over the years, but the restaurant was surviving without a major overhaul.

“Maybe that’s the secret,” John said. “Hasn’t changed here. The same. It’s like what they call stopped in time, something like that.”

An espresso machine brought in 20 years ago and the recent addition of soy milk were the only shifts John could recall.

Mary Callahan, a former Upper East Sider visiting Viand from Palm Springs, Calif., said she had been coming to the diner for decades. 

“The ice cream is the best,” she said, adding that she used to buy up five chocolate sundaes at a time, then take them home and store them in her freezer. "But the tuna salad’s also good.”

Lynn, a waitress at the Applejack for the past 13 years, also saw few changes over the years.

“Nothing really,” she said. “Same old thing.”