Great recent episode from the excellent The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast, which chronicles the history of lunch counters and diners in NYC. This is admittedly one of my favorite subjects of all time. Just last weekend I ate at an incredible, old-school luncheonette on Manhattan’s UES – Lexington Candy Shop, which opened in 1925. Not only was it dripping with authenticity, the food was fantastic. Best tuna melt in town!
The classic diner is as American as the apple pie it serves, but the New York diner is a special experience all its own, an essential facet of everyday life in the big city. They range in all shapes and sizes — from the epic, stand-alone Empire Diner to tiny luncheonettes and lunch counters, serving up fried eggs and corned beef.
In this episode, the Bowery Boys trace the history of the New York diner experience, a history of having lunch in an ever-changing metropolis.
There were no New York restaurants per se before Delmonico’s in 1827, although workers on-the-go frequented oyster saloons and bought from street vendors and markets. Cellar establishments like Buttercake Dicks served rudimentary sustenance, and men often ate food provided by bars.
But once women entered the public sphere — as workers and shoppers — eating houses had to evolve to accommodate them. And thus was born the luncheonette, mini-lunch spaces in drug stores and candy shops. Soon prefabricated structures known as diners — many made in New Jersey — moved into vacant lots, streamlining the cheap eating experience.
Cafeterias appealed to New Yorkers looking for cleanliness, and those looking for an inexpensive, solitary meal turned to one unusual restaurant — the automat. Horn & Hardarts’ innovative eateries — requiring a handful of nickels — were regular features on the New York City streetscape.