I recently sat down with journalist Chris Shott to talk about my new book, "The Chintz Age: Tales of Love and Loss for a New New York" and about how dining out in NYC has changed. The Chintz Age is about ordinary people, a lot of them in the arts, who are struggling to survive in a rapidly changing urban climate. Dive bars, SRO hotels, and cheap diners are among the mainstays of their lives, the things that enable them to remain in the city. Diners and coffee shops provide food for the common man, the salt of the earth, and, as such, are endangered by the recent wave of hyper-gentrification, which caters to more fancy-schmancy tastes. In no particular order, here are a few of my favorite diners, some long gone, some having been driven out of business only recently by the new wave of hyper-gentrification, and some, against all odds, still hanging in there in NYC.
B&H Dairy Restaurant: on 2nd Ave near St Marks in the East Village: they were closed for a couple of months due to the explosion on their block that wiped out two buildings. They have been in business for 80 years. One night I was at B&H bent over my lima bean soup when I heard a very spooky and oddly familiar voice coming from the stool next to me. Where do I know that voice from, I wondered. Turning I saw that it was Count Dracula himself, Christopher Lee. This was just a few months before he died. He had a split pea soup. It's the best in the city. And guaranteed to keep you alive past 90.
Eisenburg's Sandwich Shop: on 5th Ave in Chelsea: this one has been there since 1929 and looks it; easy to miss, just a hole in the wall. They used to have a counter man who thought the prices were too high, so if he liked you, he would charge you a lot less. He's no longer there, but the Tuna melts are still great, even at full price. Eggs crème's to rival Gem Spa.
La Bonbonniere: on Eighth Ave in Greenwich Village: sounds French, but it's not. It's a classic greasy spoon, with great little tables outside. Prices have gone up lately due to rising rents, but still worth it for the atmosphere. The owners treat you like family. Try the French toast and bacon. Another good point is that there is a good used book store across the street.
Hudson Diner: on Hudson St in Greenwich Village: This place has lots of good windows for people watching and a relatively new outside seating area. This place is the model for one of the diners in The Chintz Age.
Chelsea Gallery Diner: 7th Ave near 14th St in Chelsea: best diner in New York, sadly it's been closed for about three years (after being in business for 30 years) due to rising rents. The fries were great, hot and crispy, and tasted like they must have been fried in goose fat, or butter at least. Free appetizers and desserts on a regular basis. The quality went downhill toward the end, and the diner lost its loyal following. And the space remains empty. An example of gentrification blight.
Sam Chinita's: 8th Ave in Chelsea: bare bones interior in an old railroad car diner building (now demolished, replaced by a hideous fake stone monstrosity). Not strictly diner food, but steak and onions, crackling chicken, and beer that was dirt cheap. They closed 15 years ago.
Donuts Sandwiches: corner of 23rd St and 8th Ave: a double horseshoe counter with stools; two donuts and a small coffee for $1; cheeseburger deluxe (lettuce, tomato, fries) for $2.95. And you could pay with a subway token if that was all you had. Closed back in the 90s to make way for a crappy, overpriced pastry shop.
Florent: Gansevoort St in the Meatpacking District: not strictly a diner, but more of a French bistro (though they always kept the old R&L diner sign), late night they were filled with club kids and trannie hookers. Always an Oscar night costume party. The moules frites and steak frites were the best imaginable. Closed about seven years ago due to rising rents in a once peaceful neighborhood that's completely lost its mind.
Leshko's Diner: Ave A in East Village, just off Tompkins Square Park: seedier than the more famous Odessa a couple of doors down, with crummier food, too, though a lot cheaper. Closed in 1999 only to reopen a couple of years later in a less authentic incarnation.
Cheyenne Diner: This place had terrible food and abysmal service (no matter how many times you went there, they never recognized you), but worth it for the atmosphere because it was in a beautiful train car building, one of the best in New York (now moved to Alabama or some damn place). Closed in 2008 (after being in business for 68 years) due to the nearby Hudson Yards development.
Tick Tock Diner: 34th St and 8th Ave: Though it's hard to tell if the place is old timey or faux old timey (opened in 1997), the clientele is composed of a bizarre mix of left over old Times Square hustler types and clueless tourists. Good burgers, and grilled cheeses on awesome marble rye bread.
Kiev: near 2nd Ave near 7th Street in the East Village: a Ukrainian diner, this one has been closed for a long time. They had great blintzes and pierogies, but I often ordered a wienerschnitzel sandwich.
Hector's Diner: on Washington Street under the highline: a diner serving the now all but extinct meatpackers who work in the area at night, this one is only open in the early morning hours (though maybe they've extended their hours lately), and so I've never been there. But this place deserves a mention anyway because the tiny, one-story brick building looks so forlorn and out of place now in the midst of all those high-priced fly-by-night eateries and boutiques that have colonized the area. Hector's Forever!