For as long as I can remember I’ve been both aesthetically and experientially invested in the whole American diner concept. I might be British born and bred but there’s just something about a tacky metallic exterior, upholstered leather booths, tabletop jukeboxes and the aroma of fried onions that ignites something sentimental in me and just makes me feel… at home.
I spent a great deal of my tender youth thrashing out the trials and tribulations of adolescence while sipping on Oreo ‘Shakes straight from the malt cup. Traipsing up Bold Street to Eddie Rockets in Liverpool‘s historic arts quarter, with some angsty American pop-punk ringing in my ear was a sacred Saturday afternoon ritual. Malted milkshakes and bowls of cheese & bacon fries were the order – exactly what you might expect from a faux-fifties diner complete with checkerboard floor tiles and Go, Johnny Go! blasting through the speakers.
Sadly, Eddie Rockets is no longer and hasn’t been for a good number if years now. It will go down in the history of Liverpool as a local legend and forever cast a shadow over those who try to fill its place. The likes of Ed’s Diner and Archie’s Liverpool are all satisfactory stand-ins but there will always be a special place reserved in my heart just for Eddie Rockets. So with my favourite UK diner now only existing in my fondest of memories, I thought it high time I did a little investigation across the pond and experience what the Real McCoy has to offer.
Last year I jumped in at the deep end and took a trip to Whitemanna Hamburgers in New Jersey. As a converted gas station standing alone on the side of the road in the quite town of Hackensack, you’d expect neither the winding queue of customers nor the abundance of awards this bonafide diner has snagged. It’s a bit tatty and the trucker-cap clad burger-flippers spare no expense on food presentation but the burgers are bloody delicious. They may come served on a paper plate which is slung at you over the counter as you sit on a bar stool wondering when the squeezy sauce bottles were last deep cleaned but the food is great and the experience is definitely authentic.
During my most recent trip stateside, I decided to switch up the vibe somewhat and see what the metropolis of modern Manhattan had in the way of American diner experiences. After rooting about on the internet for the best places to eat in New York when you prefer something off the beaten tourist track, I found myself on the virtual doorstep of the fabulous Empire Diner.
At some point during my cyber meandering, I saw a photograph of Susan Sarandon eating in the Empire Diner so I was already 80% sold right there and then. Situated a short walking distance from out hotel in Chelsea, the restaurant was always going to be a far cry from the likes of Ellen’s Stardust Diner. However in terms of food, menu and experience, it had a LOT to live up to against Beauty and Essex where we had enjoyed an extraordinary brunch (featuring red velvet waffles and fine dining grilled cheese) the previous morning.
Arriving at the diner on 210 10th Avenue, I got the kind of heart flutter that only somebody who has a degree in cinema studies and a passion for food writing simultaneously would comprehend. This was like two of my favourite worlds colliding – Empire Diner glimmering in all its Art Deco glory with its name emblazoned in a retro typeface that wouldn’t look even slightly out of place on Quentin Tarantino closing credits. Beyond the metallic facade was equally as impressive. Tiled decor, stainless steel bar-ware and booth seating all pay unapologetic homage to the classic American diner, while impeccably dressed waitstaff, marble tabletops and a soft soul soundtrack elevated it to modern sophistication.
The Empire Diner menus were made to match this cunning clash of contemporary style and kitsch tradition too. To whet our appetites we went for a simple black coffee (poured from a refill jug, of course) and a freshly squeezed OJ. However had we been feeling more reckless than we were on the morning that our trip was coming to an end, there is a repertoire of bespoke cocktails, spirits, wines and beers to choose from. I even noticed they had one of my favourite gins behind the bar but I was far too ravenous at this point to indulge.
The Empire Diner All Day menu is a collection of classic American dishes that you’d likely find at almost most every eatery on the same block but these ones have a certain finesse. We went for the Fried Chicken & Buttermilk Waffle ($22) and the Grilled Steak & Eggs (£22) as well as a side of scrambled eggs for good measure and every bite was as delicious as the last. The steak which we asked to be cooked medium-rare arrived as exactly that and was a melt-in-the-mouth kind of meat that you don’t mind paying that little bit extra for. The poached eggs were perfect and the breakfast potatoes were incredibly moreish.
The buttermilk chicken came served on the bone and was all the more juicy for it. The crisp and crunchy batter around the outside was seasoned expertly with just the right amount of southern attitude. Such a savoury ingredient was perfectly balanced with a sweet waffle which was as light as you like and a real mouthful of comfort. Food for the soul. The only one thing I would have to point out is that the little jug which came served alongside the chicken, bacon and waffles was in fact a slightly spicy, oil-like pour-over. On closer inspection of the menu, it does describe it as Maple Hot Sauce but for those who are as negligent as me, beware if you’re expecting your standard maple sauce.
Empire Diner was, without shadow of a doubt, one of the best places I’ve eaten so far in New York so if you’re in the Big Apple looking to grab a bite, be sure to check this one out. If you’re looking for other great places to eat in the city, I would also wholeheartedly recommend TAO Downtown, Root & Bone and The Butcher’s Daughter. There are also some fab places to get food on the go in New York City, you just need to keep your eyes peeled and follow your nose.
It might be the city that never sleeps but it certainly ain’t the city that never eats, that’s for sure!