A couple of weeks ago, we broke the news that a Midtown eatery, Comfort Diner, had landed the lease for 399 Grand St., the former home of Noah’s Ark Deli. This week, we asked owner Ira Freehof about his plans for his new place, which is tentatively scheduled to open in mid-to-late summer.
“I like being in places where there are real neighborhoods,” he said of choosing the Lower East Side for his next venture. “It’s important to me to know the people I see. And it felt like this neighborhood doesn’t have anything like what we do.”
The LES version of Comfort Diner will be very much like the 18-year-old flagship on East 45th Street, with homestyle food and a local vibe. Freehof expects to sign the 15-year lease this week, so the renovation plans are not yet finalized, but his vision includes a front counter to serve customers in a hurry and cozy booths populating the main dining room. The breakfast, lunch and dinner menus will feature classic diner fare–hearty breakfasts, sandwiches, soups, salads and burgers, as well as a few larger plates. A full-service soda fountain will churn out egg creams, milkshakes and housemade cherry lime rickeys. A children’s menu and special discounts for senior citizens are also in the works. The total seat count will be around 100, he said.
One difference from the uptown spot: Freehof plans to seek a full liquor license for the Grand Street location. That will allow him to set up a bar in the rear portion of the space catering to a later crowd, as well as serve mimosas and bloody marys at brunch and “FAO” (for adults only) milkshakes.
“We have a few different personalities planned for the space,” Freehof said. “Just as the neighborhood is evolving, we will evolve throughout the course of the day.”
Freehof has spent some time studying his new clientele, and impressed the Seward Park Co-op board, his new landlord, with his grasp of the community’s changing dynamics. (The chocolate-chip cookies he served at his presentation couldn’t have hurt, either.) After much debate spanning several weeks, the board chose Freehof’s proposal over competing offers that included a kosher restaurant that would serve the area’s dwindling Orthodox Jewish population. While he isn’t serving kosher food, Freehof said, he aims to accommodate as wide a variety of patrons as possible, he said.
“Comfort Diner is an appropriate bridge between the neighborhood where it’s been and the neighborhood where it’s going,” he said. “We’re going to serve the 77-year-old grandmother who wants an egg-salad sandwich at 11 a.m., and the 25-year-old young professional who wants a burger and a drink at 11:30 at night.”
The LES restaurant is not the first time Freehof has expanded his brand. He operated a second location at 86th Street and Lexington Ave. from 1998 to 2003, when it closed due to the building being torn down. That location and its successor, a spot on 23rd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, also served liquor. The 23rd Street spot closed in 2008.
He imagines his eateries as places where “everyone feels comfortable,” from the regulars to the tourists in shorts and business people in suits and ties.
At his uptown diner last week, the midday crowd was an eclectic mix of just that, with kids slurping milkshakes at the counter and local office workers popping in for a quick lunch. The decor features wall sconces depicting vintage cereal boxes like Post’s “Sugar Krinkles”; the soundtrack runs into the 1970s. The coffee is strong and comes with mini-pitchers of milk, not the plastic thimbles of non-dairy nonsense. The butter pats are the real thing, too, and the plentiful portion of bacon that comes with the $12 “lumberjack” breakfast rides the right line between crispy and chewy.
The burgers come fast and furious from the kitchen, piled with cheese, red onions, crispy lettuce and tomato. For $10 (beef, turkey or veggie), the burger comes accompanied by fries, a side of creamy slaw and a half-sour pickle that will be right at home in the 10002. (See the full menu here.)
Freehof started Comfort Diner in 1996 because he wanted to build a neighborhood gathering spot.
“My original vision was an American version of the French bistro, with a bunch of regulars,” he said. “And after a lot of research, I figured out that that’s exactly what classic American diners were to America in the ’40s and ’50s.”