Mid-afternoon, Roman Diakun, proprietor of the East Village’s Stage Restaurant (128 Second Avenue, 212-473-8614), walks down from his apartment above to check in on his customers and items being prepped for dinner. Raised in Poland via Ukraine, Roman has owned the restaurant since 1980, and over the decades, he has seen the East Village become home to David Schwimmer’s townhouse, green juice bars, and Momofuku. This city is still full of diners, and Stage remains one of the greatest.
Wooden siding and framed reviews from the early 1990’s cover the walls at the Stage, and there’s no bathroom here. There are also no tables, just one long, Formica-topped counter running the length of the narrow restaurant where first timers mingle with locals, Eastern Europeans, old-school East Village-beatniks, and hipster urban professionals. No one gets special treatment here. As a friend said, it’s like a clubhouse with an open admission policy — all you need to do is walk in.
Some of Stage’s patrons walked in years ago and became super-regulars. “We have a few guys who’ve come about everyday since 1985…about two times a day,” says Roman. “They never order the same thing twice in one day.” That’s about 11,000 visits to the same restaurant, by the way.
On most days, the man behind the counter is Andrew, a 20-year veteran of the Stage. He plays a combination of cook, host, server, busboy and maître d. He works the griddle, refills your coffee, and clears your plate. He might ask about your dating life.
You’d also be wise to entrust him and his supporting cast with your order. A regular recently came in and asked, “What’s good?” ” Meatloaf,” Andrew replied. Two simple head nods and 40 seconds later, that regular was enjoying his paper over meatloaf, potatoes, and greens. This is how you take care of guests.
Andrew and his cohorts might also recommend additions to your order. If you order pierogis, for instance, they will always, always ask if you want sautéed onions served on top. You do. A regular I met said these onions were also the secret to his order of the Frank Costanza favorite, Kasha, which tastes like a hybrid of oatmeal and faro made of buckwheat.
Another incentive to relinquish responsibility of your order to the crew: There are a vast number of items to choose from on Stage’s menu, and they range from diner classics to Easter European staples. Consider a cup of the fantastic Ukrainian borscht soup — beet borscht with added vegetables for flavor — and a grilled cheese, which is built on homemade challah bread (baked two to three times daily) and made with a few dollops of butter and single-sliced American cheese. It gets my vote for the best grilled cheese in the five boroughs. Add sweet tomato and juicy sausage links to launch it into the sandwich hall of fame.
You could also go for an Old World classic, like the homemade and individually rolled blintzes with homemade cheese and fresh blueberries. “We start with the farmer cheese and add eggs and vanilla syrup,” says Roman. Or try the pierogis stuffed with cheese, spinach, or mushroom. They’re like European dumplings but better. And don’t sweat the 15-minute wait for fresh potato pancakes. Served with sour cream and applesauce, they are made to order in the back kitchen by Polish exports Anya and Kristina. “Even a small order, we grate the potato, a little egg, and flour. If people want onion we will add onion,” says Roman.
On my way out a few visits ago, another regular summed it up best: An obsession with New York starts here. It’s true. Fare here is rooted in Eastern Europe and prepared by Polish and Ukrainians expats, but the Stage is a true New York restaurant.
Just make sure you get in while you can: The building that houses the Stage Restaurant was sold to a large real estate corporation last year. Roman says the restaurant’s future is uncertain, but it’s got at least a few more good years left on the lease.