Like a lot of American diners, Del Rio was entirely unremarkable: Cakes and pies enshrined in cases under fluorescent lights. Waiters in black vests and white button-down shirts. The Mets on TV. A generation ago, New York City had about 1,000 diners just like this one. Last year, it had less than 400. From its first day in 1976 until yesterday, its last, Del Rio basically never changed, and never needed to.
Breakfast yesterday was a wake of sorts, as locals came to the diner located at the border of Gravesend and Bensonhurst to pay their respects and perform their rituals.
Rose Viets, 22, and her family finished their meal, as they always have, by playing Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” — song number 0207 — on the AMI CD Wallette Jukebox.
Richard Castricone, 58, ordered the challah French toast with sliced bananas and powdered cinnamon, his special for 40 years, starting when his mother, Celia, was a waitress here. Eddie Speranza, 58, wearing his Del Rio softball jersey, reminisced about the first local championship his team won in 1981, and the surf and turf they ate here right after.
Sunday mornings are pretty busy at Del Rio, co-owner Larry Georgeton, 66, told me. But yesterday was unusually packed, and some people had to wait outside for an hour to get a table. Usually, around this time, Georgeton would be climbing around in the refrigerators downstairs with a clipboard, taking stock and calculating food orders for the upcoming week. But he was done with that now. Today, all he needed to do was dispense handshakes and hugs.
“These are the last goodbyes. That’s why everyone’s coming, the nostalgia,” he said, perched on a stool by the counter, where he was chatting with Georgette Barrile, who waited tables here for sixteen years, until 1997.
Georgeton, a Long Island native, opened the place with his brother-in-law, Jimmy Vlamis, and a friend, Teddy Mavromichalis, when he was 26. Their kids didn’t want in on the business, and he said he’d rather they work a little less hard and a little less long. Georgeton says there was a time when he didn’t take a day off for nine years.
Outside, I stood with 53-year-old Bradley Ellison as he finished his cigarette. He remembers when he was a kid and this lot was a hole in the ground, and said he could mark every chapter of his life at the Del Rio. He came here with his mother, who always used to get the lamb chops. He came here drunk and high at 3 a.m. after punk shows. He came here after nights working on a fishing boat in Sheepshead Bay. He’s here now with his daughter and his girlfriend, Alyce Gargano, 50. She ate at Del Rio after her Sweet Sixteen party, and also had her first date in the diner.
They live on Staten Island now, Ellison told me, and he hadn’t been to the diner in about three years, but when he found out the place was closing, he knew he had to come back one last time. “You’ll understand when you get old one day,” he said.
The owners of Del Rio also run Vegas Diner, a mile and a half away. That restaurant will remain in business.
“Vegas, yeah, it’s a diner,” Castricone says. “But not like this diner here.”