News & Politics

The Last Working-Class Diner


Diner chic has been in style for almost a decade, with restaurant designers spending thousands of dollars trying to re-create the mysterious feelings of nostalgia and comfort induced in customers by the powerful combination of eggs, coffee, and cheeseburgers served amid formica, stainless steel, and cozy naugahyde-covered booths.

Which is why as soon as the landlords of 371 Lafayette Street succeed in knocking down the venerable Jones Diner—one of the last great original hash houses in lower Manhattan—the new tenants will immediately seek to reproduce its simple fare and warm, hospitable atmosphere at higher prices.

“Ours will be classic American comfort food,” announced Andrew Glassberg, a partner in the company that wants to build a bustling new three-story, 24-hour restaurant on the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones Street where Jones Diner has served legions of hungry factory workers and latter-day bohemians since the 1920s.

Glassberg, along with his partners, lawyers, and architect, sat at a table in the basement of Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Greenwich Village last Thursday night, plaintively trying to convince the local zoning committee and a mostly hostile audience that his company was neighborhood-friendly despite its goal of helping to evict a beloved local eatery. “We are all about eggs and burgers. We want that classic diner feel,” said Glassberg, an earnest, soft-spoken young man whose new restaurant would be called simply Cafeteria, like the one he and his firm already operate at Seventh Avenue and West 17th Street.

“We are working people, little guys, not rich,” Alex Poulis said. “Give us a ray of light.”

At the table behind the applicants sat the proprietors of the site’s current classic diner, George Serkizis and Alex Poulis. They had come straight from work. Their diner is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. Serkizis, 63, still wore his white uniform, which had gravy and ketchup stains on the apron. Poulis, 36, wore jeans and a gray, V-necked Yankee T-shirt. Both men are of Greek origin. Serkizis bought the diner in 1974 after moving to America from the island of Samos; Poulis joined him as a partner 10 years ago. “We make a living, not much, just a living,” said Serkizis as the hearing began.

The debate before the zoning panel was this: In order for Glassberg and his partners to build their new restaurant, they need a variance from the zoning code, which prohibits dining establishments of the size they want to erect. They need a big restaurant, one partner explained, because it is the only way to meet the rent being asked by the landlord, Olmstead Properties. The catch is that the landlord can’t get that much rent (he refused to say how much he’s asking) unless a variance is granted. The local panel is only advisory, and the final decision is up to the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. To win the approvals, the Cafeteria people have hired lawyer Howard Zipser of Stadtmauer Bailkin, one of the city’s premier zoning attorneys. Seated beside his clients, Zipser looked relaxed and confident. “This is just a classic zoning variance case,” he said.

Serkizis and Poulis came to the hearing without a lawyer. In fact, Poulis said later, their attorney had urged them not to show up at all in hopes that the landlord might relent and grant them a new lease. Otherwise, the diner has a deadline of October when, based on a court-approved stipulation signed last year in a weak moment by the diner operators, they must vacate.

Their only remaining leverage is the zoning code. Jones Diner is in an area zoned for manufacturing because, when it was built, the big cast-iron and federal-style brick buildings along Lafayette, Great Jones, and neighboring Bond and East 4th streets were filled with woodworking and machine shops and small garment plants. At breakfast and lunch, workers swarmed through the diner’s narrow door, plunking themselves on the green padded stools and into the brown booths. Most of those businesses are long since gone; however, their lofts are now occupied by well-heeled residents and swank high-tech offices.

But Jones Diner has endured. Its $3 breakfast specials (juice included) and the never changing plastic-lettered menus above the big gleaming coffee tureens, offering meat loaf sandwiches for $3.25 and pot roast for $4.50, still lure passing delivery workers as well as employees of the neighborhood’s last industrial outposts, the lumber yard down the block and the muffler shop across the street. There is also a loyal cadre of local residents who, in a swath of urban landscape that boasts three Starbucks, an Au Bon Pain, a Wendy’s, a McDonald’s, and an ever expanding universe of mid- to high-end restaurants, still find the Jones the most comfortable dining place within walking distance for simple meals.

“I like the elbow room and the coffee,” said Keith Crandell, seated in the last booth with his newspaper spread before him and a heavy Jones mug in his hand. Crandell has lived around the corner in a Bond Street loft since 1971, and he was one of some three dozen diner patrons who turned out to urge the zoning committee to turn down Cafeteria’s variance application.

“George and Alex are my neighbors,” Crandell told the committee. “They have six booths and 18 stools, and they sell grits, which I like. Please don’t let these folks be destroyed by the juggernaut of development in this neighborhood.”

Jones Diner has other fans as well. One morning a few months ago, Alex cast a glance at the man sitting with a young woman in the end booth and realized it was Paul McCartney. The diner is also popular as an authentic-style backdrop for those filmed-in-New York City TV shows, Law and Order and NYPD Blue, and there are autographed pictures of Jerry Orbach and Michael Moriarty hanging on the diner’s walls to prove it.

These things and more were raised at the zoning committee meeting by residents who said they didn’t want another new trendy eatery in their midst. “Jones Diner is an icon,” one neighbor told the committee.

Alex Poulis also rose to speak. “I never make a speech before, please be patient,” he began. He then proceeded, in clear, concise sentences, to describe the long, tangled legal battle with the landlord and his hopes to remain. “This diner means a lot to me, to George, our families. The students from NYU all come, the artists, the movie people. We spent a lot of money on this. We are working people, little guys, not rich,” he said. “Give us a ray of light.”

There was applause, and then a woman named Fisher stood up. “That man, he gave a speech like Jimmy Stewart. It reminded me of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This neighborhood is getting very, very fancy. I don’t see why we can’t keep something for the working people.”

Not all of the neighbors present agreed. Peter Voletsky, the president of a residential loft co-op at 20 Bond Street, which abuts what would become the southern end of Cafeteria, said since there was “a fairly good chance” the variance would be approved by the appeals board, they should work with the new restaurant. The new tenants were already behaving like “cooperative neighbors,” he said.

“One has to be realistic,” said Voletsky, an attorney with shoulder-length hair. “The [Board of Standards and Appeals] is not the place to debate the problem of a place like the Jones Diner.” Besides, he added, things could be worse. NYU could build a high-rise dormitory on the site. “And that would block out our light,” he said.

After the hearing, the zoning committee discussed the issue among themselves and then voted unanimously to reject the variance. “They listened to us,” exulted Alex the next morning when he got the news. “Who knows? Maybe we can win.”

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