Empire Diner (New York, August 2019)


We ate dinner at Empire Diner in Chelsea on our second evening in the city. Why did we eat there? Reasons are there two: 1) we needed to eat somewhere within relative proximity to both our apartment and to the theater where the missus was scheduled to watch Say Something Bunny that evening ; 2) we tried a walk-in at the Midtown Ippudo Ramen location and were hit in the face with a ludicrous projected wait at 5.15 pm. So I checked the list of recommendations I had been given by my compadres on Mouthfuls and gave Empire Diner—a short walk from the theater—a call. They had many tables available and so we hopped back on the subway and went over. We didn’t really know what to expect or whether this would be a meal up the boys’ alley. But it turned out rather well, albeit not very reasonably priced.

The space has a long, chequered history stretching back to the 1940s. At this point to talk about the restaurant itself as having this history is a bit like the adage about the grandfather’s knife (“my father changed the blade and I changed the handle”). The space broadly speaking is the same—though the interior has changed—and the name has been mostly constant (it became the Highliner for a while); but the different incarnations of the restaurant, under different owners, have presented very different menus. In its current avatar—just a few years old—it presents a mix of diner food and fancy gastropub’ish fare. That is to say, burgers and fancy meatloaf share a menu with melon gazopacho with king crab and heirloom tomatoes. And I am referring only to the things we ate. It’s a contemporary eclectic menu that screams “cheffy” on every line—at least for the dinner offerings—but one is willing to accept trendy tics if the food tastes good. And it uniformly did.

Things got off to a very good start with the fresh buttermilk biscuits they set down gratis. These were both very good—along with very good butter—and very substantial. Indeed, this did not work to their benefit when it came to our bill. I was hot and tired when we got there and decided to start with a bowl of their melon gazpacho with lump king crab etc. and then figure out what I would get next. But the gazpacho turned out to be a large portion and the biscuits helped fill me up enough that I didn’t feel the need to get anything else. In this they had assistance from the excellent herbed fries that came with burgers both boys got from the kids’ menu . They reported that the burgers were very good (they’d better fucking have been at $15 for a small kids’ burger); but the fries were so good that even our boys who normally like their fries uncontaminated by green things ate them by the handful. Also very good—and a very large portion—was the meatloaf the missus ordered. The meatloaf itself was tasty and had a nice light weight and everything else on the plate complemented it very well. I got a big bite of this as well. My gazpacho was really very good and exactly what I needed after a hot, humid day in Central Park.

We ended by sharing one piece of their chocolate layer cake between the four of us. This was rather large too. Which meant that we were all full after having eaten two kids’s meals, a bowl of soup and one entree (and, of course, those excellent biscuits). You might think this means we got out on the cheap but this was not true. More on price/value etc. below. First, click on a thumbnail below to launch the slideshow of images of the space and food.

While I failed to photograph the bill on this occasion, my credit card statement tells me that all of the above, tax and tip came to $108. This might seem like pretty good value in Manhattan for a meal for four even if two of the four were children. But consider that we got here with just a bowl of soup, two small burgers w. fries, one entree, one dessert and one cup of coffee. The food was good; a value, it was not. And you could spend a lot more: the entrees go all the way up to $32 and the smaller plates top out at $18. Still, it may well be par for the course in the neighbourhood. And I must say my gazpacho was a very good value at $12. I would come back just to eat another bowl of that along with a buttermilk biscuit or two.

We were there early and they were not busy; service was very good: present and friendly. The missus reported that when she walked past it again after her show ended it was completely full. What the experience is like then, I have no idea. I also have no opinions to offer on their all-day menu, not having eaten it (I do note that the buttermilk biscuits are on that menu for $4). So, price/value aside, I would recommend Empire Diner for anyone looking for a casual but well-executed meal in the neighbourhood. And if our experience is any guide, you will not need reservations for early dinner, even on a Saturday.

Up next from New York, the first of my three Indian meals in the city. But before that, another Indian meal, this one in DC.

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