Counter Culture: 8 Great NYC Diners

Julie Besonen

New York City diners are the real deal, roadside food for the city that never sleeps. Everyone is welcome—no dress code or posh zip code required. For dates, chats or a home away from home, it’s hard to beat a genuine diner. The vintage stainless-steel icons have been doing a disappearing act of late, but there are quite a few still cookin’ in the 21st century. Don’t be a stranger!

Georgia Diner
Marked by a big neon peach sign, Georgia Diner dishes out Southern-style hospitality and an endless roll call of breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night staples. Looking through the menu and making a decision is almost overwhelming. Before or after a trip to Target in Queens, it is the place to grab a bite. A big bite—portions are bust-a-button enormous. Service is swift and friendly, and you’ll never suffer from having an empty glass or coffee cup in front of you. From omelets to hamburgers to the hot turkey dinner, the quality is outstanding. Open since 1979, it’s a real peach of a place and offers ample parking.

Empire Diner
Everyone from David Bowie to Bruce Springsteen to Mary-Kate Olsen has eaten here, so keep your eyes peeled. From breakfast through the wee hours, it’s always good for people-watching. This Chelsea landmark’s art-deco facade has been featured in the opening credits for Saturday Night Live and in loads of other TV shows and movies. But there’s beauty behind the stainless-steel surface as well, especially when it comes to juicy burgers, pigs in blankets and root beer floats. It’s rich with kooky charm, from the vintage decor to the sassy staff. Prices are higher than what you might expect at a diner, but keep in mind that the outlay includes a prime Manhattan real estate experience.

Square Diner
Amid TriBeCa’s top-notch restaurant scene squats the Square Diner, a paean to the scruffy neighborhood of yore. It’s outlasted the dearly departed Moondance Diner—and, fingers crossed, it continues to dodge the wrecking ball. This warm, funny little greasy spoon fries up excellent breakfasts and burgers blocks from the World Financial Center. The crowd is a hodgepodge of locals, construction workers and families with little kids who happily slurp egg creams and extra-thick shakes. Service is quick and courteous, and prices are endearingly low, especially for the area. Sprinkled among old-fashioned diner favorites like London broil and the tuna melt sandwich are more modern, health-oriented salads, wraps and panini.

Baron’s Café
In the heart of culturally diverse Greenpoint, this ambitious Polish-American diner features cocktails and Eastern European beer alongside blintzes and pork cutlet. The neighborhood is a multilingual melting pot, a blend of older immigrants and hip newcomers. The bargain-priced menu reflects that, covering a range of proclivities, from Italian (chicken marsala) to Austrian (schnitzel) to Hungarian (pancakes) to French (filet of sole). American appetites will be sated by the burger, chicken fingers with french fries and pie with ice cream. When weather permits, everyone heads for a table on the spacious backyard patio.

Skylight Diner
When you’re not quite ready to head home after work or a show, the Skylight is always there for you. Teddy and George run this bustling hangout, catering to humble worker bees and suits, tourists and police. It does bang-up delivery service, and you can even put in an order online. But it’s fun to belly up to the counter or slouch in a booth and watch the Hell’s Kitchen world go by. Regulars swear by the matzo ball soup, crunchy French toast, meatloaf with plenty of gravy and golden fries that are just what the doctor ordered. The savvy waitstaff is known to go above and beyond the call of duty, such as making out individual checks for a large group.

Tom’s Restaurant
It’s been both a blessing and a curse for Tom’s to be forever immortalized as the diner in Seinfeld. Pop culture fanatics stop for photo ops outside but rarely venture in, and when they do, it’s not what they’re expecting. Think you can linger in a booth and parse your neuroses? Forget it. This is a what’ll-you-have and slap-down-the-check sort of place, no malingering allowed. What Tom’s is really about is cheapness and convenience, the very definition of a diner. It’s where Columbia professors and students head for a quick bite after class, or where middle-of-the-night cravings for french fries or a plate of eggs and bacon are satisfied. Ignore the Seinfeld kitsch, sit down for a cheeseburger deluxe, milk shake or egg cream and scram.

B&H Dairy
If Jews had a truck stop, this would be it. The cafeteria-style kosher food is served in hefty portions with affable charm. The tiny, cramped space allows for just a few customers at a time, elbow-to-elbow at the counter or wedged into tables for two shoved against the wall. On a funky block in the East Village, this relic brings a disparate world together, from bookish hipsters with thick-framed glasses to endearing senior citizens and teamsters with meaty biceps. Everyone seems to agree that the roster of 10 or so soups (borscht, mushroom barley, etc.) rocks. The homemade challah bread serves as the base for amazing French toast. And if you don’t count fish, the place is pretty much vegetarian. Pound for pound, B&H is a mighty little champ.

Pelham Bay Diner
Start your day with the gluttonous Bronx Breakfast: pancakes, French toast or waffles with bacon, ham, sausage and two eggs, then go home and sleep it off. If you’re looking for heaps of comfort food, this is the place. Put your diet on hold for waffle fries with cheese and gravy, a mile-high meatloaf sandwich and delicious fountain treats. Owners Carol and Jerry Stefanitsis have kept this big, polished establishment humming since 1982, catering birthday and anniversary parties and other celebrations in two special rooms, and adding more health-conscious items, like salads and grilled vegetable wraps, along the way. The mega-menu is an out-and-out variety show for all tastes, with pizza and mozzarella sticks for the kids and surf and turf and a full bar for the adults.