Whatever happened to the old fashioned diner I grew up with in New England? You know the kind — the kind where there’s always an old man at the end of the diner counter reading a newspaper, going through several cups of Joe and in the old days, he had a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
I’m thrilled about the updated laws on cigarettes, but I still miss the small town diner and frankly, what I know today about America’s food industry, I wish a diner existed with all the same dishes, only using organic meats and produce and yeah yeah, at the same inexpensive diner prices. Hey, a girl has got to dream!
Don’t get me wrong – I realize the old fashioned diners still exist and I discover them from time-to-time in small towns and there’s even one I get poached eggs and rye toast at on occasion along San Francisco’s Mission Street. They don’t ‘get’ diners on the west coast the way they do in the midwest or New England, my old stomping ground, where I’ve spent a significant amount of time this year.
First thing on Christmas morning this year, I found myself craving a diner breakfast so I did some digging for ‘old fashioned’ on Yelp and a handful came up in the Bronx and Harlem, since central Manhattan wasn’t in my filter.
This is the kind of diner that doesn’t have a TV blaring nor does it offer extensive meals at $30 a pop. One Riverdale favorite came up called Tibbett Diner, which people gloat that going there to try their chicken potpie is worth a trip alone. We were about to set up for Tibbett, which dates back to 1968 and has no shortage of neon-glowing tacky decadence, when Blue Bay popped up, also in Riverside.
I had a gut about the place, and so Blue Bay won and off we went. Luckily, parking was relatively easy and there was space at the bar. We immediately noticed locals coming and going, largely single men in their sixties and seventies, who all had a paper in their hands — a good sign.
Prices are reasonable and in addition to fattening sandwiches, and more traditional diner main courses, they had an extensive breakfast menu, ranging from pancakes and French toast with bacon, sausage, Virginia Style ham or Canadian bacon (priced more than regular bacon) to omelettes and rye toast with eggs (my favorite). Hash browns and toast come with all the main course breakfasts and of course, they keep filling up your cup of coffee like you’d expect from an old fashioned diner.
Then we met Alex or I should say he met us. I was at the end of the counter snapping a shot of their holiday wreathe on my iPhone and he asked if I was new to the neighborhood – obviously he hadn’t seen me pop in before and clearly he knew all his regulars. Everyone seemed to be a regular at Blue Bay.
Anthony and I began to talk to locals. We learned from Clyde, who sat down next to us and has been coming to Blue Bay for over 20 years, that there’s more vegetables at Blue Bay whereas he finds the Italian meals at Tibbett to be much better, where he also gave two thumbs up for their pot roast. He ordered his ‘regular’ for a Thursday which included the bean and veggie soup of the day. I asked him, “do you come in here every Thursday?” He laughed lightly and said, “I come in here every day.” I’d guess it’s safe to call Clyde a regular.
Greek-born, Alex is the main fixture at Blue Bay however, who bought the diner back in 1975 and has been running it for the past 40 years. As he shares some of his stories with us, he gives us a mathematical quiz in the middle of it, one which stumped us. How many 9’s are there from 0 to 100? See if you get it right……
When he made a coffee and topped it with whipped cream from a can, I somehow knew it was for himself. We talked about Greece for a bit – what’s not to love? I lived in Corfu over twenty years ago where I stayed afloat serving coffee, wine and Greek food and performing Greek dances for tourists. His family originally comes from the small islands just on the outskirts of the main island.
Apparently coffee prices were only 10 cents when he opened in 1975 and today they’re $1.50 but like every small business owner, the cost of doing business has more than tripled. To get to this side of the Bronx, the bridge back in 1975 was only 10 cents today is $4.50. With salaries still ridiculously low considering the cost of living, it’s astonishing that we’re not all living in buildings with 2 or 3 other families.
The rye bread was oh so New York, just the way I like it and the butter wasn’t added after the toast went cold, which so many places tend to do — this has even happened to me at two different 5 star hotels in New York City. They also have those fabulous black and white cookies we used to get at Rauch’s Bakery in Gloversville as kids.
Two thumbs up! We’d definitely return. Blue Bay is located on 3533 Johnson Avenue in the Bronx New York.
A few old fashioned diners in the New York City area worth noting include:
Bel-Aire Diner – Remember that I’ve my fair share of time at George’s Diner along Buhr Avenue this year in the Bronx and Blue Bay Diner is also Greek run. It’s not news that Greek diners are great. Astoria in Queens is the capital of the all things Greek dining, with diners being popular. Bel-Aire has been around since 1965 and touts a swivel-stool counter, mirrored walls and bits and pieces of 1960s nostalgia. They are known for their Greek dishes. Located on 31-91 21st Street, Queens.
Tibbett Diner — as noted above, according to Clyde, Tibbett is similar to Blue Bay in many ways and according to him, it offers more variety than Blue Bay, but there are pro’s and con’s to both and so….he goes to both regularly. It is located on 3033 Tibbett Avenue in the Bronx.
Empire Diner – located in Chelsea inside a shiny Art Deco train car oozing with 1950’s style vinyl booths, gleaming chrome, blacktop tables and a pianist. It’s been around since the mid forties and has that authentic flavor that’s worth a stop. It’s not quite like the diners you find in small towns, but for Manhattan, it’s an interesting experience. Empire Diner can be found on 210 10th Avenue.
Cup & Saucer Luncheonette — Along a tacky stretch loaded with kitch New York memorabilia, Empire State building magnets and postcards, you’ll find this old fashioned 1950’s diner. Think the Honeymooners but 50’s style. It’s traditional in that it’s all things greasy, from burgers and grilled cheese to fried eggs, sausage and bacon. While I haven’t tried this myself, I read that you get a free glazed donut if you order food for delivery whether or not your arteries want it. It is located on 89 Canal Street.
Let us know what diners you love in New York City in the comments below: east, west, north and south.