Known as “night owls,” the first diners were horse-drawn carts equipped with a griddle and icebox, selling snacks outside the city’s honky-tonks from dusk till dawn. These crude vehicles were replaced in the late 19th century by discarded streetcars retrofitted with a counter and stools. By the 1930s, companies were manufacturing stationary structures that looked like streetcars, featuring art deco streamlining, now outfitted with booths to encourage families. And in the 1950s, eastern Mediterranean immigrants took over the trade, and the Greek diner was born. The menu had evolved over the years into a compendium of classic American dishes: soups, sandwiches, roasts, seafood, hamburgers, all-day breakfasts, spaghetti, and spanakopita.
Now the diner has come full circle. On the Bowery—once the city’s most hardscrabble thoroughfare, these days sprouting boutiques, discos, and art galleries—a new-wave version has appeared in precisely the same place where the original night owls sought out their customers. In emulation of Pulino’s, Bowery Diner is heralded by a garish red neon sign that says “Diner” in an antique font. It would be easy to call it an eyesore, except the sign vaguely recalls Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. But does the place really qualify as a diner? Well, yes and no.
The brilliantly lit interior features expanses of teal and antiseptic white, alternating with waffled metal surfaces that playfully suggest diners of the past. This being a modern restaurant, there’s a cocktail bar up front, configured like a lunch counter. The menu’s bedrock is seven hamburgers, priced about twice what you’d expect to pay in a diner. Nevertheless, the hamburger deluxe ($14) is opulently good. The soft bun embraces double patties with a choice of salad or fries. Rather than the underdressed salad, pick the fries, made from dense, moist spuds and nicely browned. Remember that in a traditional diner, the fries are invariably awful.
But instead of the standard burger, why not check out the Bowery Special ($15)? One of the patties has been replaced with a salty plank of house-smoked pastrami. The two warring slabs are separated by a French slice of Gruyère, the world’s greatest melting cheese. On the other hand, maybe you’d rather have just the pastrami without the burger. Called “smoked meat” in emulation of Mile End, Brooklyn’s Montreal-style deli, the smoked-meat sandwich is slightly milder than the pastrami at Katz’s. Bowery Diner is making a sincere attempt to soak up our city’s culinary terroir.
Also in a diner vein, there’s a good French onion soup ($9) and a less satisfactory clam chowder, plus mac and cheese, a few forgettable salads (pro forma in conception and lacking enough dressing), and a smattering of sandwiches. In addition, a breakfast menu available until 5 p.m. includes pancakes, waffles, eggs, and morning meats. The maple sausage and bacon verge on spectacular, while the meager pancakes ($7.95) are not the fluffy flapjacks brunchers dream about, unless you pay extra for chocolate chips, passion-fruit sauce, and bananas and butterscotch.
At this point, the pretense of a diner menu slips away like a discarded paper coffee cup with pictures of the Parthenon on it, and we find ourselves sitting in a French brasserie. An extensive raw-bar selection can be accumulated into surprisingly authentic plateaux de mer ($72/$102). There are whelks, for God’s sake—just try requesting those in a Greek diner—served raw or cooked with garlic butter. You’ll also find periwinkles, Jonah crab claws, oysters, scallops, clams, mussels, snow crab “clusters,” and calamari, variously available in cooked or uncooked form. Best is a mackerel ceviche that comes in the thick vinaigrette of the kind that should, I guess, have been on your salad.
And the Frenchness doesn’t stop there. Among entrées, there’s a choucroute garni ($24), porkily featuring smoked belly, smoked loin, boudin blanc, kielbasa, a frankfurter, and, the time I tried it, about three soupy gallons of kraut. Duck confit comes with curly fries—a first on either side of the Atlantic—and there’s also a whole homard served incongruously with coleslaw, recalling that lobsters are what the French really envy us for, besides Hollywood. Inevitably, there are expensive invented cocktails, whole bottles of wine that aren’t as pricey as you’d expect, and cans of beer. To pay $6 for Porkslap, though, is a crime against beer drinking.
So what do we have, in total? A diner giving itself airs. But also remember, as real diners close up all around us, that maybe Bowery Diner will turn out to be the last one standing—at least in one newly chic downtown neighborhood. So shut up and eat your hamburger.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.