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.
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