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How Chefs and Restaurateurs Are Reviving America's Classic Diner Spaces

Old-school diners get a modern interpretation.

Empire Diner, New York City.
Empire Diner, New York City.
Krieger/Eater NY

Chef Stephen Shallcross still remembers the first time he met Faye "Arkie" Sawyer. It was the early '90s, and Shallcross was a long-haired student at the University of Texas, new to the Austin area, when he entered Sawyer's iconic roadside diner Arkie's Grill. "Arkie was a total character," Shallcross says. "The very first time I went, we waited probably 15 minutes for our turn to have a seat. Arkie said, 'You know, that wait was long enough you could have had a hair cut.' He sits us with these two other guys, burly construction dudes, and he introduces us. He goes [to the construction guys], 'I don't know these boys. Keep an eye on them for me.' That was it. I just thought, 'Oh my God, I love this place.'"

Faye Sawyer opened Arkie's Grill — a blue-collar diner serving omelettes, breakfast tacos, and daily specials — in 1948, running it until 1994. Sawyer died in 1998, and the diner changed hands a few times before Shallcross, now a chef, purchased the property. "I very much wanted to revive Arkie's," Shallcross says, "and revive the sense of community that I remember when I first went there."

"For every demographic, there was a time they could go to the diner. It was everything to everybody."

Shallcross isn't alone in that urge: Old-school diners across America are getting a modern interpretation. In the past year, several chefs and restaurant owners across the country have taken over classic diner spaces. In Boston, restaurateur Joe Cassinelli revived the iconic Rosebud Diner, which opened in 1941 and shuttered in May 2013. The Rosebud, which sits on the National Register of Historic Places, was reborn in September as Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar. Portland, Oregon saw two new-school diners debut in old spaces: the Dime Store and All-Way both took over decades-old lunch counters. And in New York City, celebrity chef Amanda Freitag made her much-awaited return to a restaurant kitchen in a surprising place: the 69-year-old Empire Diner, a Chelsea architectural icon that had been closed since 2010 (an attempted revamp, called the Highliner, shuttered in 2012).

"To me, the diner was a place when we were kids we would go for breakfast, when we were teenagers we would go hang out because there was nowhere else; when we were of drinking age we would go after drinking," Freitag says of the diner's place in many American memories. The Empire, specifically, has been immortalized everywhere from Woody Allen's film Manhattan to Tom Waits's album cover for Asylum Years. But for a New Jersey girl with a penchant "for whatever cheesy, egg-y, hammy thing there was" at her hometown Pilgrim Diner, Freitag says the diner as a collective site represents something more. "For every demographic, there was always a time they could go to the diner," Freitag says. "It was everything to everybody."

The old Arkie's Grill space. Photos: courtesy Sawyer & Co.

The world's first diner debuted in the 1850s. According to the curators of the American Diner Museum, the first iteration of the diner was a horse-drawn sandwich and coffee cart serving late-night eaters in Providence, Rhode Island. By the early 1900s, many of the roaming diner carts, which remained open after traditional restaurants closed, put down permanent roots, occupying the horse-drawn streetcars increasingly becoming obsolete. The American Diner Museum traces the concept's evolution from greasy-spoon streetcars to the spaces that are iconic today: In order to attract female customers, many diner owners cleaned up their acts in the 1920s and 1930s, swapping old dining cars for streamlined railroad cars. In the 1940s, post-war Americans were frequenting diners en masse, and by 1948, "a dozen diner manufacturers were competing for part of the economic pie," helping to popularize the Formica counters, upholstered booths, and chrome-base stools now associated with the style of restaurant.

"It would have saved us more money to demo it to the ground."

The original Arkie's was of that post-WWII diner generation, and when Shallcross took over the space in 2012, he inherited a nearly 70-year-old building that was "literally disintegrating" in parts. "It was almost a joke," Shallcross says of diner's structurally unsound walls, surprise water damage, and firebrick in the kitchen. "Week by week there was something new that we had to redo that we thought we might be able to keep. When I say it would have saved us more money to demo it to the ground, it probably would have saved us $100,000 start to finish."

But Shallcross was adamant that the Arkie's space — now rechristened Sawyer & Co. in tribute to the former enigmatic owner — remain respectful to the original. The "retro" booths on Sawyer & Co.'s back patio are actually original to the restaurant, just cut and reconfigured for the outdoor space. "We wanted everything we did to be respectful, and to feel like it might have been that way," Shallcross says of the look, which was created by industrial designer Mickie Spencer (who then signed on as a co-owner). "To say that it actually could have been old — without being kitschy or too trendy — is the best way to put it. We wanted something that would have a timeless appeal." At the Empire, Freitag had similar reservations. "We didn't want it to have a Johnny Rockets feel, you know? We really didn't want it to be a very typical soda fountain feeling. We wanted it to be modern but retain the feeling of a diner."

The revamped Sawyer & Co. space. Photo: Amador/EATX

At Sawyer & Co., Shallcross sidestepped that problem by harking to Mid-century design elements, from the restaurant's repurposed booths to its light fixtures, which were cheaper to build from scratch than to purchase. At the Empire Diner, famously constructed by the Fodero Dining Car Company in 1946, Freitag's team decided to keep the familiar black, white, and chrome color scheme intact. In addition to the short-lived Highliner, the Empire had previously been refurbished into an "upscale" diner in the '70s. During that particular remodel, owners replaced the Formica counter with black glass, and painted the now-signature "EAT" signage onto the building's exterior back wall. Freitag kept those details, adding lights custom-made to complement the space's chrome. "We definitely modernized it without it being too kitschy or too overdone, like too much of a movie set," she says. "We wanted it to be a neighborhood restaurant."

"That has happened to all of us — to go to our old haunt and find it's not there."

And in Portland, when the 55-year-old Red Coach restaurant shuttered in April 2014, local restaurateur Peter Bro snatched up the space with the goal of keeping its unique interior mostly untouched. (Externally, he didn't have an option: The two-level diner sits inside the art deco Berg Building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.) "It was always one of those quirky institutions which not everyone knew about," Bro says of the hidden Red Coach. "But that's what I liked about it." While revamping the space into his lunch counter All-Way, Bro had to contend with the 113-year-old building's crumbling sewage system. But in the dining room, the Red Coach's familiar red booths remain. "They were really the real touchpoint to the place that everyone remembered," Bro says.

As a onetime Red Coach regular, Bro knows the memories associated with an institution: "That has happened to all of us — to go to our old haunt and find it's not there." The All-Way now serves old-fashioned burgers and sandwiches to a downtown lunch crowd "that has to be in and out in an hour," Bro says, noting that in addition to preserving the iconic space, his modernized lunch counter had to be "respectful" of its built-in clientele. "[When you're] taking over an institution, you have to be mindful that you have do something that's going to respect what an institution does," Bro says. "An institution does not tend to be super complex — an institution tends to distill its offerings, its fare, to the point where it's been able to maintain itself for a long time."

All-Way, Portland. Photo: Avila/Eater

That institutional reverence is crucial, and for many chefs, their modern diners have to navigate that space between respecting the "classics" and respecting their own "chef-driven" ambition. When Freitag announced her plans to take over the Empire, the phrase "locavore diner" emerged: Shortly after it opened, Eater critic Robert Sietsema discovered cheffy upgrades like marrow bone in the matzo ball soup and black truffle butter in the mac-and-cheese. (The ultimate trendy food item — avocado toast — also makes an appearance.) Shallcross, the Louisiana native, paid tribute to his hometown on the Sawyer & Co. menu, sneaking some "New Orleans spin" in comfort food classics. A sausage breakfast scramble uses house-made boudin blanc; Cajun-fried turkey takes the place of the roasted Arkie's classic; gumbo is served daily instead of the diner's usual soup du jour.

Modern diners often have to navigate the space between respecting the 'classics' and respecting 'chef-driven' ambition.

Although their menus have received an update, all the chefs stress simplicity as a diner trademark. "It was really important to me to have things that were super approachable," Freitag says, "[so] somebody who didn't know anything about me, the diner, or the history could walk in there and be pleasantly surprised." Tellingly, classics like the patty melt, deep-fried seafood (fish and chips, fried oysters), and an iteration of chef's salad appear on both Freitag's and Shallcross's diner menus. At breakfast, all the expected favorites, from omelettes to pancakes to biscuit sandwiches, appear.

But according to Shallcross, the traditional diner experience emerges most in his restaurant's style of service: Mainly, Sawyer & Co.'s tendency to place the guest first. "More often than not these days, especially in new restaurants, there's not much customization of the menu," he says. "I was at a place recently where I asked to add coleslaw on my sandwich, and they said, 'No.' I'm like, 'Well, just sell me a side of coleslaw.' They said, 'No, coleslaw only comes with the barbecue plate.' Are you kidding me?" He laughs. "We are the exact opposite of that... I think that's a nostalgic experience that we're missing. The idea of [having] what you want when you want it is very Burger-King passe. 'You're going to get it the way we think it's good' is the new standard."

The Empire Diner. Photo: Krieger/ENY

"A diner is someplace that you can always come home to."

The nostalgia tied to classic diners seems to hinge on that idea — "comfort" comes not just from gravy-laden plates, but guests' feeling that they can truly personalize their dining experience. "You can go to a diner any time of the day, night, morning, late-night, and you can eat and drink anything without any judgment," says Freitag. "You can roll up in sweats, you can come in a ballgown after a wedding because you're starving, you can order whatever you want. [The diner] gives guests free-range... We have no rules. We have no regulations; we get it." More than the chrome seats and diner cars, it's that simplicity and accessibility that captures guests' nostalgic impulses — the ability to have pancakes and bacon for dinner, disco fries and cherry pie for breakfast, or bottomless cups of coffee at 2a.m. "A diner is [someplace] that you can always come home to," Freitag says. Thanks to many restaurateurs, that will remain the case for generations to come.