Hidden away in Lower Manhattan, amidst all the skyscrapers and modern glass and steel office buildings, is a small diner. Tucked away on Pearl Street, in the old part of the city, it is one of the last remaining stand-alone diners in Manhattan.
Dwarfed by towering buildings, the Pearl Diner is an anomaly in New York, where the real estate is measured in millions. This small, stand-alone diner has somehow survived the seemingly never-ending urban growth, and continues to serve wholesome diner food in cosy surroundings (note: by stand-alone diners, we mean one story buildings with at least three separate walls).
They belong to the almost entirely bygone era of the luncheonette, the automat, and the railroad car diner.
Today, in Manhattan, there are just five stand alone diners remaining. We went to go explore them all, starting downtown and working up Manhattan.
The Pearl Diner
212, Pearl Street, Financial District.
Located in the heart of the Financial District, the Pearl is a beautiful old diner that opened in the early 1960s. At night, its neon sign is a warming beacon set against the backdrop of the 24-story skyscraper next door (built in the ’70s).
The diner was built by the Kullman Building Corporation of New Jersey, who made prefabricated, iconic looking diners of stainless steel and formica that tended to evoke railroad cars in style, size, and shape.
The Square Diner
33, Leonard Street, Tribeca.
This tiny, beautiful railroad car style diner has been serving up delicious comfort food to Tribeca residents since 1922.
Old photos show that the original diner was a long, wooden building, which was replaced by the gleaming stainless steel diner in the 1940s.
The inside boasts snug booths, polished wooden ceilings, chrome fittings, and blue glass.
Hector’s Cafe and Diner
44, Little West 12th Street, Meatpacking District.
One of the last old-fashioned places to eat in a neighbourhood that has lost almost all of it’s working class roots.
The meatpacking industry has mostly been replaced by the glitz of the Standard Hotel and the surrounding streets’ chic boutiques.
Tucked away underneath the High Line, Hector’s once catered to the workers of the old meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses of the 1960s. Hector’s has thankfully survived the onslaught of tourists and the fashionable, swanky brunch set.
Star on 18
128, 10th Avenue, Chelsea.
Understated and with a plain, painted exterior, the Star on the corner of 10th Avenue and 18th, is a far cry from the gleaming, stainless steel of the classic diners.
But step inside, and you will find a homely, cosy diner, with traditional booths and counter stools.
The Empire Diner
210, 10th Avenue, Chelsea.
The Empire is perhaps Manhattan’s most iconic stand alone diner. Designed and built in the sleek, gleaming Art Moderne style, it was constructed by the Fodero Dining Car Company in 1946.
According to The New Yorker, “There’s the Chrysler and the Empire State, but this diner in Chelsea is more quintessentially New York than just about any other building.”
But despite its being featured in Woody Allen’s Manhattan and on the cover of Tom Waits’ album, Asylum Years, the iconic diner has had a turbulent life. The original space from the 1940s was abandoned for many years before being refurbished in the 1970s to cater to Chelsea’s thriving art scene (the old diner even had a piano).
But the Empire was to close again in 2010. With sky-rocketing rent, one of New York’s most recognisable buildings has had four different owners.
Manhattan was once home to dozens of similar stand-alone diners. But construction, high rents, and lack of protection has seen all but these five either tragically torn down or moved out of the city. As more of the stand-alone diners disappear, so too does a large part of the city’s charm and neighbourhood character.