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A Eulogy for Market Diner in Hell's Kitchen

Eater NY staffers Robert Sietsema and Nick Solares pay a farewell visit

Open since 1962 — with a hiatus from 2006 to 2008 for a stunning restoration — Market Diner is one of the city’s most distinctive and well-preserved pieces of architecture. The one-story structure boasts a zig-zagging overhang and picture windows that slope inward at the bottom, furnishing futuristic views of the warehouses and gas stations that surround it. With bright orange, high-backed Naugahyde booths and hemispheric metal lamps inside, the impression it makes is generally 1960s, and Jetsons more specifically. And this Sunday it will serve its last bacon cheeseburger and final Western omelet, depriving Hell’s Kitchen of its most representative structure. (Where is the Landmarks Preservation Commission? Asleep with its face in the mashed potatoes!)

It was a once a hangout for celebrities who wanted a plainish meal on the down-low. Diane Keaton, Bette Midler, Rudy Giuliani, and Kate Smith ate there, and so did Geraldo Rivera, who appeared one evening in a priest’s outfit with a gaggle of cops, having just returned from an undercover assignment. Frank Sinatra, who had a back room curtained off for him and his pals, came to the Market Diner more than once in the wee hours after bar time. A Times article from 2007 quotes Saul Zelin, one of the owners, "That was the big thing, at 3 or 4 or 5 a.m., when the bars closed," he said. "That was back in the days when drinking was the thing. Guys came in pretty loaded, to be honest with you. They were exciting times."

The Market Diner is featured in episode 126 of Seinfeld, entitled "the Shower Head," in which Newman and Kramer meet a vendor of illegal shower heads to purchase one with a higher-than-legal water flow.

Market Diner was one of the city’s premier 24-hour dives.

Beforehand Newman says to Jerry and Kramer, "Sometime this afternoon, behind the Market Diner, an unmarked van will be waiting." The Irish gang known as the Westies used the diner as an informal clubhouse and as a place to meet after rubbing out associates. It was a cheap-eats refuge for generations of Broadway stage hands, chorus girls, and bit-part actors in search of a meal or snack after work. Market Diner was one of the city’s premier 24-hour dives.

Diners were an invention of Greek immigrant restaurateurs in the post-World War II era, though these establishments were descended from the railroad dining cars of 50 years earlier. In fact, early diners, mainly manufactured in New Jersey, had a streamlined appearance that resembled a sleek and shiny train. But by the time Market Diner came along in 1962, diners didn’t look like dining cars but more like Vegas. Moreover, they were designed to fit into the urban grid, making complete use of lots and having both counters and booth seating to accommodate groups of many sizes. This one was nearly unique on the West Side of New York for another reason: It had a parking lot, making it a destination for groups driving in from Jersey (sometimes with a stiff in the trunk, one might imagine).

Photographer Nick Solares and I decided to visit the Market Diner for a final farewell. We went mid-afternoon, and found the place busy, with all of the high-backed booths and many of the counter seats taken. Our waiter had a Greek accent. The modern menu at Market Diner shows how the place has evolved to meet the culinary aspirations of modern patrons. While the traditional diner featured American food like meat loaf and open-face roast turkey sandwiches with maybe a sprinkling of Italian and Greek fare, today’s menu includes newfangled wraps, panini, jalapeño poppers, artichoke dip, quesadillas, seafood, and breakfast burritos, as well as more meal-size salads than anyone would have imagined a half-century ago. Anyone care for an Asian Crispy Chicken Salad?

We went mainly for the standards: a Salisbury steak ($13) that came with separate bowls of mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. The belt-busting repast also included a prefatory soup from a choice of three (chicken noodle, minestrone, avogolemono). We picked the latter, a Greek classic, and got a large bowl of tasty, citrus-scented, rice-studded, starch-thickened goo; it was the highlight of the meal. The steak – really a small meatloaf – arrived smothered in a tomato and green pepper sauce instead of the usual brown gravy, with lemon-roasted potatoes on the side. Double spuds!

[Clockwise from the top: Salisbury steak, omelette, salad, soup.]

We also enjoyed a fine Athenian omelet ($10.50) stuffed with spinach and feta and accompanied by shredded hash browns. Odd man out was a baby arugula salad ($9.50) that we ordered for the sake of modernity, which was studded with micro pear tomatoes, walnuts, and pimentos in a wasabi dressing. It, too, was profuse and good, but we came to the conclusion that whatever the menu item, Market Diner would always give a slight Greek spin to it, making the food old school and modern simultaneously. We also concluded that the food at Market Diner was a notch or two better than similar diners that remain forlornly sprinkled around town.

Isn’t the mix of businesses in a neighborhood important?

Which is neither here nor there considering its imminent demise. Soon there will be another high rise condo in a neighborhood that once had a working-class feel to it, filled with empty apartments that have been purchased by Europeans and Asians for investment purposes. And even with a liberal mayor, nothing is done to stop this sort of cultural and culinary depredation. Isn’t the mix of businesses in a neighborhood important? Do real estate developers have an absolute right to do anything with their properties, no matter how foul? As Gothamist proclaimed, referring to the Market Diner, "Why do developers want to kill everything we love?"

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