For a time, diner culture was dining culture in New York. And although those halcyon days have long since passed, the city’s need for greasy spoons endures even if wistfulness is often an establishment’s most potent spice. Convenience and reliability are the hallmarks of truly great diners, and the most resilient among them usually last thanks to a combination of nostalgia and an occasionally excellent stable of American, Eastern European, Greek, or Italian dishes. Where some see grit and grime, others recognize the smell of a well-seasoned flat top. So brush past the seemingly endless sea of kale salads and join Adam and Eve on that raft (‘Adam and Eve on a raft’ is diner slang for two poached eggs on toast) in search of these, our 11 best greasy spoons.
11. Pearl Diner, 212 Pearl Street, 212-344-6620
We almost lost this 51-year-old restaurant, a classic standalone diner in the heart of the Financial District, to Hurricane Sandy, but luckily it reopened last March. Despite a well-worn interior, the kitchen puts out hearty, cheap entree plates like turkey meatloaf, gravy-soaked turkey, and a sturdy patty melt — all under $10. Pearl also played host to a pouty, beat-up Robert Pattinson in the 2010 film Remember Me, so no one will judge you when you wipe away a meaningful tear after that final bite of omelet.
10. Cup & Saucer, 89 Canal Street, 212-925-3298
On the eastern edges of Chinatown, this narrow lunch counter serves up breakfast sandwiches and glistening bowls of fat-slicked chicken soup to a neighborhood in flux. When it opened in 1940, it catered to a primarily Jewish clientele, though the menu was given a comprehensive makeover in 1988 under new owners. That means ordinary cheeseburgers, an extraordinary fried fish sandwich, and oddly enough, great yogurt smoothies.
9. Pop’s Diner, 4429 Kissena Boulevard, Queens; 718-463-7719
A remnant of Flushing’s pre-microcosm past, Pop’s has been serving expansive breakfast platters to residents of the busy Queens neighborhood for over 50 years. Sausage links in particular are positively engorged, enough so to be mistaken for British bangers, and egg cookery is top notch. Daily specials cycle through a variety of cuisines, and recently the restaurant has started offering house-made Brazilian hot sauces available on request. The vibrant sauces — made with bode, malagueta, and cumari peppers — perk up sandwiches, soups, and specials like stuffed peppers.
8. La Bonbonniere, 28 Eighth Avenue, 212-741-9266
One of the last bastions of affordability that remain in the once-groovy West Village (though breakfasts can still run $10+), La Bonbonniere looks like it’s held together by the many post-its, stickers, signed celebrity photos, and various signage that adorns the walls and counter. A window seat here makes for prime people-watching, but we like to snag one of the six blue vinyl stools up front — all the better for zoning out on fluffy banana pancakes or the perfectly serviceable burger, juicy and without pedigree. Given its location and atmosphere, it would make a perfect post-party pit stop, but sadly it’s only open until 7 p.m.
7. Tom’s Restaurant, 782 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-636-9738
To call Tom’s a time capsule would be an insult, as the ornately decorated diner, in operation since 1936 and owned by members of the same family since the 1940s, is more of an interactive museum exhibit with its stained glass, faux flowers, and wooden booths. Here is the archetypal chocolate egg cream, made in five easy steps and topped with whipped cream. Milk, seltzer, chocolate syrup; always with Fox’s U-bet and always stirred with vigor. In recent years, the menu has expanded to fit the neighborhood’s changing demographic, with specials like sweet potato latkes and spicy chicken or beef burritos.
6. Lexington Candy Shop, 1226 Lexington Avenue, 212-288-0057
You’ll spend a pretty penny for your handcrafted milkshakes, malteds, and soda fountain delights — nostalgia in this zip code, like everything else, doesn’t come cheap. Thankfully, the food lives up to the promise set by dedicated flourishes like a working Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer and old-fashioned syrups used to make soda pop. A bulky turkey club is big enough to share, and when the cooks hit their mark, the burger is everything it needs to be to live up to those drinkable confections. Lexington Candy Shop is also one of the few places in the city that advertises that Midwestern delight, the butter burger (literally a griddled burger topped with a melting pat of butter).
5. Broadway Restaurant, 2664 Broadway, 212-865-7074
The faded facade of this Manhattan Valley canteen lends it an air of stoic dignity. In business for over 40 years, we love manning a post at the U-shaped counter where a venerable, caring staff serves some of the liveliest diner food uptown. Pancakes reign at breakfast, fluffy and slightly sweet — so what if there’s no real maple syrup? — and the accompanying sausages are crisped and plump. Dinnertime finds a mixed bag of blue plate specials, including chestnut brown yankee pot roast and a most excellent Italian-American mashup of meatloaf parmigiana.
4. Joe Jr., 167 3rd Avenue, 212-473-5150
Despite losing its much beloved 45-year-old Greenwich Village step-sibling in 2009 (the Gramercy location was sold off sometime in the 1970s), this unassuming greasy spoon east of Union Square griddles some of the city’s best diner-style burgers: freshly ground chuck patties seared hard and served on a generic, squishy white bun. Cooked medium-rare, they exhibit the kind of robust depth of flavor that comes from a well-seasoned grill top, with a burnished crust and juice-spilling interior.
3. Odessa Restaurant, 119 Avenue A, 212-253-1470
Odessa’s fallen sister establishment, a dimly lit cafe and bar that closed last August, lives on in the back of this 24-hour East Village Ukrainian diner, where the restaurant’s back bar serves drinks Wednesday through Sunday starting at 8 p.m. Chances are you’ll need a drink after taking on one of the restaurant’s gargantuan open sandwiches and Eastern European combination plates. Choosing between an array of pierogi, griddled kielbasa, potato pancakes, and cabbage cooked several ways (including paunchy stuffed cabbage filled with piquant ground meat) is no easy feat, but we never leave without ordering a plate of the prodigious cheese blintzes, crisp and overstuffed.
2. Eisenberg’s, 174 Fifth Avenue, 212-675-5096
It’s fitting that one of the city’s most iconic lunch counters sits in the shadow of one of its most iconic buildings, and this Flatiron gem is beloved for New York classics like frothy egg creams, matzoh ball soup, tuna melts, and bulging, cheese-drenched Reubens. In business since 1929, Eisenberg’s atmosphere is intoxicating. Stopping in to make change, we observed the line-entranced diners near the entrance and felt compelled to settle in among them. Current owner Josh Konecky is a former regular and the restaurant operates with a level of care befitting that kind of admiration. Servers scoop, slice, and shimmy past one another in balletic unison behind the lengthy counter.
1. Stage Restaurant / B&H Dairy, 128 Second Avenue, 212-473-8614 / 127 Second Avenue, 212-505-8065
Occupying storefronts on opposite sides of a stretch of Second Avenue that already boasts a number of enduring neighborhood treasures like Gem Spa and Paul’s Da Burger Joint, both of these humble, precious lunch counters offer a nostalgic taste of a neighborhood that’s fighting hard to retain its character. Both restaurants serve an amalgam of Eastern European and Italian comfort foods, though Stage’s non-kosher menu is considerably longer. We love B&H for its soulful, warming soups; crisp grilled cheese; and fruit blintzes. Stage we adore for its invigorating borscht, eye-opening fried pierogi, and generous daily specials like mashed potatoes and hand-sliced roast beef swimming in gravy. Stage also gets a special mention for our favorite egg and cheese on a roll in the city. They complement each other so well that it’s too hard to pick one over the other, and so we won’t.