DEATH OF THE DINER

My father Morris would have been 116 today. He’s been gone 36 years. I miss him every day. Now, I’m coping with the loss of something near and dear to both of us. New York’s diners are disappearing.

The New York Times reported (May 24) on “New York’s Vanishing Diners.” Since 2014, fifteen diners have been sold, those who owned their buildings profiting from developers’ visions for their land. Many more lost their leases. This included the Shalimar (I’m near tears as I write) on 63rd Drive in Rego Park (Queens), which closed late last fall. My parents enjoyed several thousand meals and evening desserts there, and my mother Blanche alone many, many more until she died in 1999.

The loss followed the June 2018 closing of Ben’s Best delicatessen on Queens Boulevard, possibly Queens’ last kosher deli. Carolyn and I visited there a year earlier. I used to bring Ben’s knishes home from my solo visits to my mother. We had a family-related connection.

The Shalimar opened in 1974, the year Carolyn and I moved from San Antonio to San Francisco. We and the kids ate there on our visits. After my mother died, we still strolled the old neighborhood (I had to stop just now; I cried), always with brunch/lunch at the Shalimar. Of late, the place was going downhill, but we went for the vibes. The Shalimar often served as a meeting spot for family and friends.

This hurts even more, because I love diners for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, a late-night snack. They’re are for big fressers(eaters). The Shalimar’s menu was vast, the portions huge. The entry showcased Danishes on steroids. As someone who eats kosher-style, I struggle in most restaurants obsessed with drenching every dish in butter, cheese, bacon and/or ham. I thrilled to the Shalimar’s variety of choices.

Being in Rego Park, the Shalimar served lots of Jewish dishes although, like most diners, it was owned by Greeks. In its heyday, you started off with a basket of challah plus pickles and green tomatoes. For brunch, I ordered eggs, onions and lox. A bagel, of course. My mother and I often went for dinner, as well. I had Romanian steak.

Foodies may turn up their noses, but here’s another thing I love about diners—casual democracy. Diners are affordable and without pretense. Everyone’s welcome. You can come in jeans or shorts, sit in a booth—I love booths—and relax. Okay, there’s better food out there, but I’ve never enjoyed any meal more than one I’ve had at a diner.

You can still find “diner-like” places. My favorite is San Francisco’s Town’s End on the Embarcadero, open for breakfast and lunch. The food is far better than the Shalimar’s, and I love going there, but where’s all the neon and chrome? The juke boxes? The waitresses (Denise looked after my mother for years—I’m tearing up again) who ask you about your family and tell you about theirs?

I’ll be 75 in a month. My time is limited. I accept loss. In Manhattan, we’ll stop by the Brooklyn Diner on West 57th. If it remains. Of course, Carolyn and I will go back to Rego Park, but it won’t be the same.

The price for living is mortality. Memories, at least, defy time.

My new book, Big Truth: New and Collected Stories, is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy.

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16 Comments


  1. Dorothy Auerbach
    Jun 07, 2019

    Have you tried Mel’s Drive In on Geary?


    • David
      Jun 07, 2019

      Been to Mel’s many times, Dorothy. Fun and some family memories there. But it’s not the Shalimar.


  2. Tracy Boxer Zill
    Jun 07, 2019

    Thanks for this David. BTW, the Brooklyn Diner is still there; I saw it on my last visit a couple of weeks ago.

    In SF, my Mom and I ate many times at It’s Tops on Market. Truly a “greasy spoon” but the memories endure. It originally opened during the Great Depression, and my bubby would take my Mom and uncle there for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even post theatre dessert.

    Now I want pie.

    Shabbat Shalom.


    • David
      Jun 07, 2019

      Get some pie, Tracy, and taste the memories. We last ate at the Brooklyn a year ago. They do a great business, but real-estate pressures in New York are huge.


  3. Jayne Wezelman
    Jun 07, 2019

    Loved reading this, David! I just helped Steve move to Manhattan where he’s started his career this week. He lives in Midtown…W38th & Ave of the Americas. While he was at an orientation meeting, I had a late breakfast at a diner right near Macy’s…Andrews Coffee Shop on the corner of W 35th & 7th Ave. Food was “ok”…yet as I sat there, I literally thought about what diners have become in the 21st century. It is truly a loss to all the coffee houses and trending brunch spots. Diners are pretty hard to come by in Chicago. I’m so glad Steve lives in NY now, and I will have the chance to visit more often and enjoy a taste of my childhood. I look forward to trying the Brooklyn Diner next time!!

    Sending love to you and Carolyn! Shabbat Shalom!


    • David
      Jun 07, 2019

      Thanks, Jayne. Not being a trendy guy, I love diners’ inclusiveness. And yes, we’ll be back at the Brooklyn. Shabbat Shalom and love to all!


  4. Claudia Long
    Jun 07, 2019

    I worked nights at the Midnight Diner on Route 117 in Mt. Kisco, NY, in 1973-1975. We were open all night, but my shift was 5pm-12, with occasional overtime to 2 am, and Sunday breakfast 7am-12 noon.
    Everyone came through: students, truckers, after-church, dates, good people and bad. I had some really scary times, and some wonderful times. I was tipped a dollar on a 35¢ cup of coffee, and I was stiffed on a meal. I would be given some change to buy a customer cigarettes at the machine, and turned down offers and fended off demands of… well, that was before #metoo by a real long time. I drank iced coffee all night and wore support hose at 19.
    One night a bunch of rowdies came in and harassed two young women having a shake and fries at a booth. I threw them out. The next night, my tires were slashed.
    The cooks screamed at all of us, and brought us flowers. A waitress hid her pregnancy because she’d be fired if the boss found out. He found out anyway, and offered her maternity leave. The diner down the road a ways was closed due to “sodomy.” I wondered how they got the goats in!
    Midnight Diner’s been renamed, but still rules Route 117!


    • David
      Jun 07, 2019

      Great stories, Claudia. To my knowledge, the Shalimar was a lot calmer. However, several scenes in the movie “Wolf of Wall Street” were shot there. I saw a medium shot of two characters in a booth—very little detail evident—and knew immediately where it was.

  5. And The Shalimar was so convenient for your sister and her husband to drive in from the Island to meet visiting relatives! That parking lot was a savior. Now where will we meet? Not a clue. Well you know what Ovid said, “Everything changes but nothing is truly ever lost.” For me, the memories will carry me through.


    • David
      Jun 07, 2019

      You have almost as many memories of the Shalimar as I have. And yes, we have to find a lunch spot in Rego Park. It won’t be the same, but it will be something. Unless we walk over to Russel Sage Junior High then Austin Street and Continental Avenue in Forest Hills.


  6. Davud Sperber
    Jun 07, 2019

    Wonderful essay. Mary is still angry at me for not taking her to Horn and Hardart in Manhattan. My dad had his office above that iconic place. We ate lunch at Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills after out wedding. We often go to Sol’s in Berkeley for our Sunday family dinners. I was quite surprised to see our restaurant named in the story. I’m honored. Growing up in Brooklyn, we often ate at a deli a block away from the Yeshiva where I went to school as a youngster. My appetizer was always a hot dog, then a corned beef sandwich for the entre. Diners and delis. Fading away but for the memories.
    David


    • David
      Jun 07, 2019

      Nate and Al’s fills the deli desire in Beverly Hills, David. Old school. Jammed on Sunday morning. As to my mentioning Town’s End, I always love eating there. Definitely one of the best dining values in San Francisco and has been for years!


  7. Ira
    Jun 08, 2019

    Murray Hill Diner-Lexington and 33rd. Ate their with our niece and her daughter Goldie the last 2 times we were in Manhattan.


    • David
      Jun 08, 2019

      Still diners in NYC, Ira. Alas, population is dwindling.


  8. Herb Z
    Jun 11, 2019

    There are still many diners on Long Island, although the number is slowly diminishing. The Dix Hills diner is top notch. we also have several Ben’s kosher deli’s, (and one in Boca Raton), which are all top notch.


    • David
      Jun 11, 2019

      Thank God for Long Island where so many Jews moved years ago, you and Kay included. I know a young couple who will be visiting Boca and going to Ben’s Best? Related to the Rego Park deli?

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