NEW YORK — As I sit at the long Formica counter, the aroma of fresh coffee laces the air like a familiar perfume. Gently sloping ceilings curve toward large windows through which I gaze at the seemingly distant universe outside. The counterman spoons thick brown gravy onto a hill of mashed potatoes and even the tune he is whistling sounds familiar. "You know," he says to me suddenly, "you should have seen this place 10 years ago."
It's then that I am reminded--as if the sleek stainless steel exterior, Formica tabletops and oh-so-familiar menu weren't clues enough--that I'm in an authentic diner, one of about 15 scattered around Manhattan that are getting more crowded by the day, as '90s budgets drive us out of nouvelle establishments and back into the arms of food that is comforting and (dare we say it?) downright cheap. Should we be surprised, then, that all over New York these classic spots are suddenly popular again?
I'm not talking about friendly corner hash houses or modern coffee shops designed in diner style. In fact, the term is quite specific. The true diner is manufactured as a prefabricated whole and transported intact--usually on a flatbed truck--to its location. There it's set down onto pre-laid plumbing and electrical outlets. It can thus be picked up and moved at will, reminiscent of the rolling food carts that as early as the 1870s were the diner's precursors, according to those who have researched the matter. "If you can't move it," goes the unattributed, but generally accepted definition, "it isn't a diner."
I've eaten in just about all those in Manhattan, but the ones I like best also happen to be convenient to places a tourist is likely to visit. From the friendliness and generosity of the Cheyenne Diner, the classic look of the River, the shockingly low prices of the Square and the instant recognizability of the Empire, these places all convey to me in some way the essence of the diner.
"This place is what a real diner looks like," says George, the friendly counterman at the River Diner, as he fills a cup of coffee without even looking, "though these days they use the word diner for everything . . . even," his eyes fill with horror, "places inside buildings."
While there is no strict textbook definition, in addition to being mobile, a true diner has a characteristic look, displaying two other essential traits: a long counter with attached stools and a kitchen that's visible to the patrons. (Some experts think that this was originally to ensure quality of food preparation.) The classic diner is long and narrow, its exterior swathed in stainless steel or other metal, with stripes of porcelain enamel. Inside, Formica rules, though many of the older diners also have elaborate tile work.
"Almost everything in here is original," George assures me, gesturing around at the long Formica countertops, tile patterns that cascade across the floor, stainless steel starbursts exploding with good cheer from the walls and sloping, metal-framed ceilings. "Even the air-conditioner is original." Only in a diner, I think, would a lack of renovation be a source of pride.
There is, in fact, a certain pleasure in knowing that I'm but one in a long line of people who have, over the years, huddled here over coffee and gooey pastries, or downed hot turkey sandwiches, tuna melts oozing with cheese and some of the best meatloaf in town. This vintage 1940s diner predates the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center across the street by several decades, dating from the same era as the nearby tourist destination, the World War II battleship U.S.S. Intrepid and the sea and space museum. The minute I pass the sleek exterior--stainless steel with insets of blue porcelain enamel--I am in diner domain. I half expect the late actress Nancy Walker to walk up with a roll of paper towels--though Rosie's Diner, where that commercial was made, has in true diner style been carted off to Rockford, Mich.
At the Cheyenne Diner, just around the block from Madison Square Garden, I can imagine myself back in the mid-1930s, when the place was built by Paramount, the same company that manufactured Rosie's. Burnished metal and aqua enamel wrap around the curved exterior of its corner location, and inside I find a gray Formica counter, speckled tile floor and stainless steel panels like those at the River. While there has been some amount of renovation, the classic look is intact.
There is no nouvelle cuisine here--no sun-dried tomatoes or sauteed arugula. What's on tap is the same old comfort food that's as much a hallmark of diners as barrel ceilings and big-haired waitresses: burgers and fries and mountains of chicken salad. And the prices, typical of most diners, are a pleasure: $4.75 for a burger and fries (served with coleslaw and the ubiquitous diner pickle); $2.25 for a grilled cheese sandwich; $5.95 for meatloaf served with soup, potato and vegetable--remarkable prices considering the amount that's piled on the plate.