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Why 2017 Is the Year of the Luncheonette

From New York to Seattle, diners are taking a seat at the counter

Rooster Soup Co., Philadelphia
Tommy Baboon/Eater Philly

Luncheonettes, a genre of restaurant that favors simple daytime fare and counter seating, are opening up everywhere. More focused than diners and more casual than bistros, they evoke a nostalgia that, in the hands of today’s restaurateurs, feels fresh. Portland, Oregon’s Kristen Murray hit on this particular charm when she opened Maurice, which she dubbed “a pastry luncheonette,” three and a half years ago. At Maurice, Murray serves a daytime menu that focuses on Norwegian and French flavors in a 580-square-foot, 32-seat space. Most of those seats are at a counter. “I wanted something that felt like you were lost in this timeless place midday that had gorgeous pastries,” she says.

Murray’s Maurice has since become one of a wave of restaurants opening across the country that are billing themselves as luncheonettes in name or concept. Some have already run their course: New York’s Hamilton’s Soda Fountain & Luncheonette debuted in 2014 with a 1940s aesthetic and closed in 2016; the Dime Store in Portland, an upscale diner with vintage look, also opened in 2014 but lasted less than a year and a half. That same year, James Beard Award winner Paul Kahan opened his Mexican diner, Dove’s Luncheonette, which has since become an essential Chicago restaurant.

Now, just a few years after those openings, luncheonettes have become a clear trend. “I think the biggest thing about any concept or trend is you don’t overthink it, and you know that this is something you need to do, and then it takes off,” Murray says. “That’s where magic lies, and that’s what’s behind the pastry luncheonette.”

This year alone has seen several restaurateurs attempt lunch-counter service in settings reminiscent of an earlier time. Here’s a look at their new takes on the throwback style:

Nickel & Diner

Nickel & Diner

City: New York
Opened: October 2016
Key Players: James Friedberg, Jonathan Chu, Selwyn Chan, Ivy Tsang

At Nickel & Diner in New York, it’s not the food that draws comparisons to ’50s luncheonettes, but the space. The team, led by chef James Friedberg and owners Jonathan Chu and Selwyn Chan, drew inspiration from five-and-dime department store lunch counters when designing the art deco space, the focal point of which is a long counter lined with stools. The overall vibe, as Ivy Tsang, one of the restaurant’s founders, describes it, is a “futuristic interpretation of a diner-inspired restaurant.”

This extends to the food, comprising elevated takes on diner classics — think chicken soup with ricotta dumplings and a veal reuben. But despite the upscale fare, like the other luncheonettes and luncheonette-inspired spots on this list, accessibility and a laid-back atmosphere are key. Diners are welcome to stick around and enjoy the top-notch coffee program long past lunch. “A lot of higher-end restaurants actually design seating to turn tables,” Friedberg says. “We take the opposite approach, where you have a comfortable booth, and there’s enough space to eat comfortably.” | Website

Tommy Baboon/Eater Philly

Rooster Soup Co.

City: Philadelphia
Opened: January 2017
Key Players: Michael Solomonov, Steve Cook

The team behind Zahav and Federal Donuts opened Rooster Soup Co. to stand out from current dining trends. “The industry’s going in a different direction, so we wanted to do something that’s uncomplicated, delicious, unpretentious, and just what you want to eat,” empire-building restaurateur Steve Cook says. When Rooster Soup Co. opened earlier this year, its benevolent concept — the restaurant donates all of its proceeds to charity — grabbed headlines more than any other detail. But make no mistake, Rooster Soup Co. is a luncheonette, with a “luncheonette” sign above the door to prove it.

When the team found the garden-level space, which was once beloved Philly sandwich shop Charlie’s Water Wheel, they were inspired by the counter running the length of the restaurant to move beyond soup. The original vision for Rooster Soup Co. was similar to a Hale & Hearty, but the counter, and the images it conjured of an old-school diner, prompted the team to modify their initial idea and go full-fledged luncheonette. Now the menu features patty melts, pot pies, and other fare in keeping with the retro look. And the counter seating has had another advantage: “It’s kind of like being alone with other people, and there’s that option to be social or not social if you want,” Cook says. “There’s this unspoken aura around a luncheonette where it’s okay to talk to your neighbor.” | Website

Dad’s Luncheonette

Dad's Luncheonette
City: Half Moon Bay, California
Opened: January 2017
Key Players: Scott Clark, Alexis Liu

Chef Scott Clark opened Dad’s Luncheonette after a three-year stint at San Francisco tasting-menu restaurant Saison. “It was the greatest departure from fine dining that I could find,” he says. For Clark, the luncheonette offers the chance to connect with diners and his community in a way he couldn’t while working in the Saison kitchen. “It’s much more personal, because I get to speak to people and really connect on a level that I wasn’t able to before,” he says. “You’re faced with the person who is making your food, and you can have that kind of personal conversation and banter.”

Like the Rooster Soup Co. team, Clark and partner Alexis Liu were looking to open a restaurant that was “casual, accessible, and relaxed,” but the decision to make Dad’s a luncheonette came only after they found the perfect space inside of a train caboose. The menu is necessarily concise and relies on local ingredients for just seven familiar lunch items, like a hamburger sandwich and homemade potato chips. | Website

Pittsburgh Lunch/Facebook

Pittsburgh Lunch & Superette

City: Seattle
Opened: February 2017
Key Players: Una Kim

Pittsburgh Lunch was the name of a soup kitchen that occupied a building around the corner from Una Kim’s new restaurant in the 1960s — the same decade Kim aims to revive with her Seattle luncheonette. At the breakfast and lunch spot (it closes at 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and at 3:30 p.m. on weekends), Kim serves soups, salads, and sandwiches to stay or to grab and go, alongside a corner store selling pantry supplies and staple household items. Kim, who previously ran daytime seafood bistro the Faerie Queene at the same location, wants Pittsburgh Lunch & Superette to be a part of the Pioneer Square neighborhood’s revival. “I want to be a standing fixture,” she told Eater Seattle. | Website

UPCOMING

The Luncheonette Northside
City: Richmond, Virginia
Projected Opening: April 2017
Key Players: Brad Barzoloski

Brad Barzoloski is opening a second location of his Virginia restaurant the Luncheonette in Richmond’s Northside neighborhood next week, proving that this is a truly of-the-moment trend. The food at the 16-seat space will be similar to the comfort food served at his original 1950s-diner-themed Luncheonette, with some variations. Unlike the original, the Northside Luncheonette will be open strictly for daytime meals, closing at 2 p.m. Eventually, Barzoloski plans to have Luncheonettes all over Virginia. “We have a few places in mind but nothing really set in stone,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. | Website

City Counter
City: San Francisco
Projected Opening: May 2017
Key players: Harper Matheson, Sean Thomas

City Counter makes clear reference to the Woolworth lunch counters that served department-store shoppers in the 1950s, complete with an art deco aesthetic and menu of soups, sandwiches, and salads. Owner Harper Matheson’s goal is to provide a place for people to eat between meetings that will “make you feel the way you did when your dad made time between calls to take you to lunch, just the two of you,” she says in a Kickstarter video to raise funds for City Counter’s stone counter, which will run the length of the 60-foot space inside San Francisco’s Standard Oil Building. If all goes according to plan, come May, San Franciscans in the Financial District can grab lunch at either a counter seat or window-facing booth.

Pudding Head
City: Detroit
Projected Opening: TBA
Key Players: Roseann Micallef

Roseann Micallef wanted her Detroit luncheonette, originally planned for a Corktown loading-dock space, to be a place that brought people together. A luncheonette, she says, is particularly conducive to her vision of an “opening and welcoming” place because “it’s more of a communal way of eating and hanging out. You’re not sitting at your own table, necessarily, and because the food is usually prepared right there in front of you, you’re more involved in that process.”

Unfortunately, the building in question was shut down due to environmental issues. Micallef is looking for a new space for Pudding Head, but remaining in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood is essential. “There’s not a lot of property available, but hope springs eternal,” she says.

Monica Burton is an assistant editor at Eater.
Editor: Hillary Dixler

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