Past and repast


What I Was Thinking Driving around L.A. last year, looking for a place to get a quick breakfast, I realized that something was missing: There are no diners. There are plenty of funky hot-dog stands and coffee shops, but no diners. On Long Island and the boroughs, the Greek diner has become the American restaurant, the old standby when no one can agree on what they want. Most of them have garish architecture that’s better off ignored. I prefer the old railroad-car-style diners like the ones still found in Mineola or Cutchogue: one long room that people squeeze into, everything surrounded by chrome. The food doesn’t even have to be good, just as long as I’m in a booth. So when I saw the old refurbished diner on Jericho Turnpike renamed Yesterday’s, I had high hopes. Maybe the old place would be gently restored, leaving some original touches. Maybe they would go a bit upscale like the Crazy Dog Diner in Westhampton. Maybe they’d turn it into a theme restaurant like Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Manhattan.

Casing The Joint The outside was a promising rendition of diners of old—plenty of hot pink and turquoise and chrome. The inside continues the turquoise and pink, but the stools, chairs and booths were covered with seashells and pastels. No retro red vinyl anywhere. Frosted-glass partitions etched with ’50s images, like hot rods, separated the tables. Booths lined the windows, all with their own jukebox heads—misleading, though, because the place’s owners always play CBS-FM. A diner-wide mural covers the wall on the left as you enter. Marilyn, Elvis, James Dean and Bogey were all in attendance. I’ve seen this somewhere before. Actually, I’ve seen this everywhere before. Except for one face, and I asked our waitress Louise who that guy with the goatee is. “That’s Don K. Reed,” she told us, referring to the WCBS-FM oldies disk jockey. “That’s his music we’re listening to. He lives up the street.”

What We AteAs soon as I opened the menu I realized that this was the same huge catalog found at all those other diners. I had hoped for some creative take on old diner comfort food with Blue Plate Specials like chicken pot pie or chili. The closest to any kind of carryover of the “Yesterday’s” theme were a few of the sandwiches and many of the customers. Desperately seeking some connection to the past, I ordered the “Billy O” ($6.25), which was sliced roast beef with barbecue sauce and sautéed onions on a seeded roll. I asked Louise who Billy O was, but she didn’t know. The silliest item was the Burger Bonaparte ($6.25), so we got that too. It was a delicious, freshly ground sirloin burger, not a patty, on a seeded roll, nicely infused with garlic and smothered with sautéed mushrooms, onions and peppers. Real sour pickles and slaw came for both of us. Sandwiches named Delancey Street and Mulberry Street were meant to invoke nostalgia, but the theme hung on by a thread. We ordered a vanilla egg cream and a chocolate shake. Louise told us the place was so new that the ice cream was still frozen like a rock. We substituted a chocolate egg cream for the shake. Both egg creams were fine, made with just the right amount of no eggs. At the next table, Irene told us she was the first woman to take over a man’s job in 1942 at a GM plant up in Tarrytown. She carries around a picture of herself from the New York Journal. Yesterday’s meant more than an egg cream to her.

The next day I returned for dinner and ordered the hot open turkey sandwich ($8.50), which I use as a barometer at these places. Before it came, a complimentary dish of beets was presented to the table. Here I draw the line. I hate beets. At least these were quarantined in their own dish so they couldn’t bleed on everything. The turkey was off-the-carcass fresh and the mashed potatoes were real. The broccoli wasn’t your typical cooked-to-death variety.

Cavity Patrol Yesterday’s bakes all its own desserts, and the coffee was strong. The Original Worlds Fair Belgian Waffles ($5.50) conjured up Flushing Meadows in 1964 and came with whipped cream and strawberries.

Vegetarian Alert Settle for what you settle for at every other diner on the Island: a plate of iceberg lettuce. Or if you’re still on dairy, try the vegetarian sandwich of spinach, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese on pita ($5.50).

Damage The prices weren’t retro, but neither was Yesterday’s.