For this week’s review, I found myself at Amanda Freitag’s Empire Diner revamp (210 Tenth Avenue, 212-243-2736), where the celebrity chef channels the good old days with upmarket twists on American fare. The dishes I preferred most were those that showed Freitag rallying in her former fine dining wheelhouse, as with a masterful pork chop crowned with pancetta and perfectly cooked trout almondine.
But I love diners. As a Bronx resident for the first half of my life, I ate in many of them: the once-great Blue Bay in Riverdale, and the still-great Tibbett diner nearby, long a favorite of my grandparents. They’re a dying breed, much like the delicatessen, and at the very least, they provide a bit of honest nostalgia. Sometimes the food happens to be very good, other times it’s just passable, but they’re all romantic glimpses into the past. Freitag’s version of the Empire Diner, by contrast, rose to fame by providing a finer dining experience in a historic space.
With a hankering for history, I waddled over to Broadway Restaurant (2664 Broadway, 212-865-7074), a Manhattanville diner that I’d placed on a list of our favorite diners. In the past I’d enjoyed countless cups of soup, from velvety chicken rice to chunky Yankee bean, as well as omelets and breakfast sausages that were all perfectly acceptable. I’d also enjoyed a weeknight special of meatloaf parmigiana, its pine nut-studded slices covered in sweet sauce and melted cheese. On this return visit I doubled down on loafed meat, which came as a dinner platter with potato and vegetable sides, a cup of soup, and warmed dinner rolls for a modest $13.
The mashed potatoes were the best thing on the plate, even if they were approaching more of a puree than a mash; a fine canvas for a generous ladling of tomato spiked gravy. Warmed rolls were also a welcome sight. Cream of broccoli soup thickened with rice and heavy on the cream still managed to taste like its cruciferous namesake. The meatloaf was as I remembered it, lightly spiced and strewn through with those pine nuts.
My traipse down memory lane was going great until I bit into a hard object that turned out to be a metal grill brush bristle. It’s something that could happen at any restaurant. I’ve encountered staples in Chinese takeout and a piece of plastic in a Cafe Boulud appetizer, but I can’t help wondering if instances like this happen less in restaurants where such fastidious care is taken. No one is immune, but precision has to count for something. The owner offered to comp the meal, but the place employs several people who look like my grandparents, and besides, I’d eaten a substantial portion of some fairly good meatloaf before I got to the piece of metal. These things are always so tricky, aren’t they?
Maybe our tastes have changed, and what once cut it as passable food and service no longer does, thanks to expanded palates and a deeper understanding of what goes into the things we eat. But the disappointment is especially painful when otherwise charming restaurants falter at the very thing they exist to provide.
Still, I’ll return to Broadway Restaurant for the things I’ve enjoyed in the past — even if it’s just to sit at that U-shaped counter with an egg cream and a grilled cheese.
But not those beans. Let us never speak of those beans.