The Best Diners Are Still Just Diners

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I always read the whole menu at a diner, but I don’t really need to. My order is both predictable and unremarkable: a cup of soup, a cheeseburger with fries. Sometimes I’ll switch things up and have a Greek salad, with extra feta cheese, or corned-beef hash and scrambled eggs, though the side of fries always remains. A cup of coffee—lots of milk—and a slice of pie. If I were to scroll back through my life, tallying every diner meal, every fat ceramic mug of watery coffee, I think they might number in the thousands. My most recent diner cheeseburger was at Old John’s, on the Upper West Side, which for seventy-odd years has served as a spark of life in the strangely antiseptic micro-neighborhood around Lincoln Center. The restaurant closed, seemingly for good, in 2020, another of the city’s thousands of pandemic-era small-business casualties, only to be taken over and revived by a former employee, Louis Skibar. Now a successful restaurateur who co-owns the Toloache Restaurant Group, he started at Old John’s as a delivery boy in 1984.

Old John’s Diner
148 W. 67th St.
(Dishes $8-$30.)

The new Old John’s is very much like the old Old John’s. The neon clock is still there, as are deco light fixtures and the black-and-white mosaic floor. But Skibar brightened up the place, swapping out the walls’ dark wood veneer for white tiling and lengthening the L-shaped counter just inside the door. He also gave the restaurant’s name a face-lift: formerly Old John’s Luncheonette, it’s now—less charmingly but, as it’s open until 10 P.M., more honestly—Old John’s Diner. Happily, relievingly, none of the changes make it feel at all modern. Diners, as a rule, are time machines; whether through the formica sheen of the nineteen-forties, the chromium optimism of the fifties, or the pastel geometries of the eighties, a diner traffics in nostalgia for past decades and past selves. The only era a diner should never reference is now.

The restaurant closed in 2020 before being taken over by a former employee, the restaurateur Louis Skibar.

For a cup of diner coffee, Old John’s is uncharacteristically rich and aromatic.

There are people who think of a diner as just a place to get a meal, and then there are those of us who understand diners, who cherish them, who seek them out and settle into them. We are recharged by time spent in diners in the way that adults who emerged from happy childhoods are recharged by a visit to their parents’ home. Every diner is different; every diner is exactly the same. The ideal of a diner—its promise, its function—is not to be great but to be there. To be open when you need a restaurant to be open, to have seats when you need to sit, to exist sufficiently outside of time and space and trend that its reliability is itself reliable. So it was a little unnerving to discover that the food at the new Old John’s is a cut above. Before reopening, in early 2021, Skibar hired the “Top Chef” alum Grayson Schmitz and the pastry whiz Tanya Ngangan to revamp the menu. Eschewing the diner convention of calling dishes “homemade” even when they’re fresh off the Sysco truck, Skibar’s team—the chefs Raul Navarrete and Victor Rojas Milan and the pastry chef Reyna Vasquez—actually makes each dish right there, from scratch. The chicken-noodle soup at the new Old John’s is soul-warming, with curly egg noodles and orange hunks of carrot and threads of white meat held in a rich, golden broth. The lemon-meringue pie is unimpeachable, with a buttery crumb crust and pucker-tart yellow curd under a snowcap of floaty, marshmallow-like meringue.

Like every other diner burger, this one is merely fine.

A diner can certainly be bad, but can a diner be, in an objective, universal sense, good? Not the sort of good that’s good enough, or even above average, but the kind of good that’s worth going out of your way for, getting on the subway for, breaking your routine for? The question is one of category: to me, any diner so superlative as to become a culinary destination ceases, in some fundamental way, to be a diner, and becomes instead something like a diner-shaped restaurant. Key to a diner’s diner-ness is that it’s yours: its value is not inherent in the restaurant itself but in the loving routine with which you burnish it. It can be baffling, to an outsider, to be introduced to someone’s favorite diner: This is it? This fluorescent lighting? These airport-jacquard booths? This sticky floor? This flaccid chicken tender? You’re surely not expecting one of the best lemon-meringue pies you’ve ever had; or satiny ice cream that a waitress, middle-aged and maternal and archetypally perfect, proudly told me was made in-house; or slices of tender meatloaf, bearing zero traces of freezer burn.

The prices, including fifteen bucks for an omelette, put to shame those of far more mediocre Manhattan diners.

The space has been updated without losing its nostalgic appeal.

The prices, too, put to shame those of far more mediocre Manhattan diners: fifteen bucks for a daffodil-yellow Western omelette, twelve for fluffy buttermilk pancakes, fourteen for the fantastic tuna melt, cheddar-draped and surprisingly pickly from the addition of giardiniera and minced cornichons. When I visited, the booths were filled with a mix of old-timers doddering, hustle-bros conspiring, parents vainly corralling kids, and solo diners nursing their fourth cup of coffee—exactly as a diner should be, though the coffee was rich and aromatic, its sidecar of milk served in a tiny juice glass. What came out of that kitchen, not merely pleasingly tolerable but actually, actively nice, threw my sense of the proper order of things into disarray.

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Still, it would be inaccurate for me to say that you should get on the 1 train immediately and get your butt into an Old John’s booth. In part, I will admit, this is out of a sense of preservation: too many perfect neighborhood restaurants, ideally attuned to the demands of their local clientele, have been utterly destroyed by a person shouting loudly, to a vast audience, that a place is awfully good and you should check it out. The crowds descend, the tourists add it to their lists; then, inevitably, come cries that the place is overrated. The prices spike, the quality declines, and resentment builds on all sides. To this point, I should note that the burger at Old John’s is merely fine: the bun is overlarge; the patty is undersalted; the lettuce, bafflingly for a place so meticulously attuned to stage-setting detail, is a single enormous piece of red-leaf lettuce folded clumsily in half. This isn’t a knock against the place; fine is exactly what a diner’s burger ought to be. Old John’s is one of the best diners I’ve been to, but it remains very much a diner, which is to say that it’s a flawless restaurant if you’re already there: if you live in the neighborhood and can’t bear the thought of doing dishes, if you’ve just had an ultrasound at Mount Sinai West and need a moment to compose yourself, if you’ve got barely an hour before curtain at the Met and you can’t risk the ebbs and flows of being a walk-in at Café Luxembourg. It’s warm. It’s open. It exists outside the flow of time. It’s easy. It's right there. A bonus is that the food is good. ♦


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