Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the April 2013 edition of The Lo-Down’s print Magazine.
One of the things that makes New York City great is its classic neighborhood diners. On the Lower East Side, we’ve got our share of these old-school spots — places that are so familiar some of us think of them as extensions of our own apartments. In a world that’s becoming more impersonal, there’s something comforting about these no-nonsense hangouts. They’ll make you anything you want, exactly the way you want it, and fast! The guys behind the counter are quick to refill your coffee and will remember exactly how you like your eggs in the morning. You’ve got to admire their ability to handle just about anything, or anyone, and usually with a smile.
As gentrification changes the LES and real estate prices skyrocket, we fear these classic spots may be in danger of extinction. But they’re here now, continuing to ride the ups and downs of the restaurant business, seemingly stronger than ever. Recently, photographer Alex M. Smith and I spent some time hanging out at our local diners, photographing the people who make them tick. These guys have clearly seen it all, having experienced decades of changes in the area. Here’s our tribute to the classic diners of the Lower East Side. (Click through for each owner’s fascinating story and some excellent words of wisdom.)
EVEREST DINER – 23 Chatham Square (East Broadway at Bowery)
Owner: Teddy Vasilopoulos
Years in business: 5
History: Vasilopoulos and his family have owned diners throughout the city since emigrating from Greece in 1973. (His younger brother John runs Cup and Saucer.) At this location since 2008, the diner was formerly a small luncheonette when he took it over. Vasilopoulos and his partner have also owned Landmark Diner at 158 Grand St. for the past 32 years. Their first diner was in the Chrysler Building, but rent increases quickly brought them downtown.
Rent: Vasilopoulos is confident about staying on Chatham Square, saying he knows the landlord would be hard-pressed to find another tenant who’s so reliable.
Words of wisdom: “I always make my food fresh. And I always have a smile for my customers.”
CLASSIC COFFEE SHOP – 56 Hester St. (at Ludlow Street)
Owner: Carmine Morales
Years in business: 37
History: As the menu states, this place has been, “Serving Real Lower East Siders Since 1976.” Morales has lived in the neighborhood his whole life. He attended public school across the street. After emigrating from Puerto Rico, his father opened Classic Coffee 37 years ago. Carmine worked in the shop with his father and then took it over.
Rent: It’s been pretty touch-and-go. The landlord raises the rent every few years and Morales is not sure he’ll stay open if it goes too much higher. The area around Hester Street is booming right now.
Words of wisdom: “Neighborhoods change, that’s what they do. I don’t mind it. Things are a lot better here now than they used to be. I don’t make a lot of money but I work for myself, set my own hours and don’t have to worry too much. Overall I’ve been pretty lucky.”
ZAFI’S LUNCHEONETTE – 500 Grand St.
Owner: Nodas Kekatos
Years in business: 35
History: Kekatos has owned the restaurant since 1978. He came to New York from Kefalonia, the “Paradise Island” in Greece. His son, Mike, took the lead about 10 years ago, but Nodas still works a couple of days a week. The original Zafiropolis opened the diner in 1948; there were two other owners before Kekatos took it over.
Rent: It’s not a concern since Zafi’s is one of the few dining options on this part of Grand Street. The space is owned by the Hillman Cooperative, whose residents are some of the diner’s best customers.
Words of wisdom: “Every morning I look at myself in the mirror and I see some flaws–a wrinkle here, something else there–and I say, ‘You aren’t perfect.’ Then when I come in and I have [a disgruntled customer] I don’t get upset. I remind myself no one is perfect.”
EL CASTILLO – 131 Rivington St. (between Essex and Ludlow streets)
Owner: Luis Miguel Collado
Years in business: 27
History: The place was a Chinese restaurant before he took it over in 1986. Collado came to New York in 1963 from the Dominican Republic. He owned a couple of restaurants previously, including Jagua Restaurant on Clinton Street, which was sold in 1977. That restaurant would later became the Spanish restaurant, Alia’s (long before what we now know as “Alias”). Collado opened the second El Castillo at 521 Grand St. in 2003. He built the diner from scratch and now his daughter, Yreinel, runs it.
Rent: Collado is not worried yet. He has a long-term relationship with the landlord.
Words of wisdom: “My food is always fresh and I keep the prices down. People want a place that is affordable. Even if you spend a lot to go out for a special night, you need a place to come to the rest of the time.”
OLYMPIC DINER – 115 Delancey St. (at Essex Street)
Owners: Steve Palakas (above) and Spiros Nakos
Years in business: 33
History: The place used to be a Jewish diner. Palakas came over from Greece in 1969 and took over the diner in 1980.
Rent: Although the city is on the verge of demolishing the building, part of the Essex Street Market, to make way for the Seward Park redevelopment project, the owners are not too concerned. They’ve been hearing about the project for 40 years.
Words of wisdom: “Give the customers what they want…Flirt with the ladies…We always welcome you back.”
CUP & SAUCER LUNCHEONETTE
89 Canal St. (at Eldridge Street)
Owners: John Vasilopoulos (above) and Nick Castanos (below)
Years in business: 25
History: The place has been open since 1940 and was always called Cup and Saucer. It was originally a Jewish luncheonette. They took it over in 1988 when the area was mainly made up of Jewish-owned jewelry stores. Then Chinatown began expanding in the last decade or more. Like his older brother, Teddy, who runs Everest, John is from Kalavrita, Peloponisos, in Greece. Nick is from Cuba.
Rent: They recently renewed their lease for another five years but are worried about a steep rent increase in the future because the building recently sold.
Words of wisdom: “We work hard, we love our customers, we have great service, especially now we have these nice, lovely ladies working with us.”