Picture it: Columbus Avenue and 72nd Street (no. 249), 1984.
On the second floor of the building is a blue, stained-glass vertical sign bearing the words "Ice Cream," evidence of what sits below. There they were, the power couple: A Sedutto ice cream shop next to Diane's Uptown, a yuppie dive of a burger joint. Inside, they were connected by a door, so you could order your burger and fries, with a shake. And not just any shake. A peanut-butter or mocha-almond-fudge ice cream shake (what my younger brother and I always chose, respectively). Or, you could get a hot fudge sundae, but you probably wouldn't have enough room for that after you'd finished with the burger. For me, this burger was something of a game-changer. I'd grown up having my weekly regular at J.G. Melon's (which should also be mentioned over here at Greasy Spoon Central).
It's your standard griddle-style, patty; modest in size. Comparatively, the Diane's burger was a behemoth — a juicy, dribbling, messy behemoth — and the topping choices were more varied and creative (at that time; remember, we're in the 80s). You could, for example, ask for a bacon cheeseburger (and choose your cheese — I switched over from American to cheddar as soon as the option presented itself) with onion rings — yes, on the burger. At first, I thought this onion-ring-on-my-burger was genius. Then, I realized, if I ordered a side of rings, I could keep adding more to the beef as I ate my way through it. Oh, cheddar fries! We always got a bowl of those, too.
It wasn't comfortable — not by any stretch of the legs. Cramped, hard-backed, cushion-less wooden booths had tables to match; their tops carved into by diners past, so their surfaces were covered with initials encased in hearts and all other manner of knife-etched graffiti. And the music was loud.
I loved it, and not just the place itself, or my milkshakes or deliciously messy burgers, but the experience of going. When I was little, my parents would always leave me (and then my brother) at home on Saturdays, with our babysitter, so they could go exploring. I think they were usually antiquing, or at a museum exhibit they thought we wouldn't like, or at non-PG movies. They'd go out to lunch; have themselves a culture-filled day of leisure in their city. I, on the other hand, had a standing McDonald's date. Up until I was five, my babysitter, who may or may not have discussed this little routine of ours with Mom and Dad, would take me on a walk to the Mickey D's in the East 60s on the Upper East Side. Sometimes, we'd eat there; when it was nice out, we'd take our Happy Meals back home and sit on tiny terrace of my parents' (then) apartment. I tried it all: The Shamrock Shake (and I dipped my fries into it as I did will all my fries and shakes there), The Steak Sandwich, even The McRib. Then, I'd sit in front of the TV and watch dubbed-over Kung Fu movies. Meanwhile, my parents were having omelets at Madame Romaine de Lyon and ogling Regency period desks.
So, when Nancy and Jim deemed me ready to join their ranks, it felt like a big deal. One of the places they took me and my brother on those Saturdays was across the park to the Upper West Side. We'd walk along Columbus Avenue and stop in Penny Whistle Toys and, on that same block (81st & 82nd), Endicott Booksellers, a long-gone independent bookstore whose brass-hooked wooden LADDERS connected to walls of lined shelves I can still remember. There was a magical modern, probably trendy (but I was too young to pick up on that) sci-fi curiosities shop called Mythology (Unlimited). The final stop on our stroll was, of course, Diane's.
As I grew up, the neighborhood started to change, and became, oddly enough, a back-to-school shopping destination. Why is this odd? Most high-school kids didn't wear Betsey Johnson, certainly not to class every day. But, along with the rest of my friends, I was a precociously fashion-focused NYC kid, and, I had both the misfortune of being a late bloomer and the fortune of having a mother who also appreciates fashion and felt my peer-pressure-ridden pain. What we discovered was that the tight-fitting jail-bait ensembles and the girlish-grunge baby-doll dresses Betsey designed were perfect for the waif-ish, flat-chested or not-as-yet bosomed types. Over on Columbus Avenue, with Mom playing the role of Tim Gunn, I'd gather my uniform of swingy short dresses, plaid hot pants, fishnet stockings, striped tights, AND punk-tinged takes on Audrey Hepburn-inspired shapes. And then, confident of my chances of getting into whatever club or bar would accept my fake I.D., we'd go across the street, to Diane's. By that point, Ben & Jerry's had taken over the ice cream parlor, so I'd get a coffee Heath Bar crunch shake, or maybe, even a mint Oreo. Otherwise, it was burger business as usual.
Diane's closed in 2002. I still miss it.