There are a lot of middle-aged guys here at George’s Diner & Cafe in Westchester Square in the Bronx. The one across the aisle from me in a tracksuit, bandana, and sunglasses is making his way through three eggs and bacon. The suits nearby eat meatloaf and mash with tostones on the side.
From the outside, George’s looks like a storefront bodega, but inside, it fulfills all of my criteria for a true Greek diner. It has comfortable booths — in this case, blue-and-red vinyl hugging sparkly blue formica-topped tables, personable counter service with swivel stools, and a voluminous menu of short-order dishes: including specialties from the owner’s native Greece — the most important of which, in my opinion, is the spinach pie.
A mattress-y, Princess-and-the-Pea accretion of onions, eggs, and dill abetting a plentitude of spinach and feta cheese tucked between sheets of phyllo dough, spinach pie is the layer cake of savory foods. Typically baked in a hotel pan, cut into portion-sized squares, and served on Buffalo China sided by an Americanized “Greek salad,” it is the quintessential diner order. Forget your triple-decker club sandwich. Forget your health salad and scoop of cottage cheese. Greasy, vegetarian spinach pie is the soul of the Greek diner. With roots in, but quite unlike, similar pies from the Mediterranean, it tells the story of this vital subset of American eateries. And there are certain diners in the New York metropolitan area that turn out an exemplary version.
The pie at George’s is fresh-baked and piping-hot. It takes a little while to come out, so the waiter serves me the salad first. Your typical Romaine, tomato, green pepper, cukes, and tart Kalamata olives, it’s draped in anchovies and crowned with a single dolma. The rice-stuffed grape leaf was pulled from a jar, no doubt, but who cares? It’s the kind of lagniappe I hope for at a Greek diner.
Finally, comes the pie. A tall rectangle, its many-layered phyllo crust goes from gummy against the filling to flaky and butter-burnished on top — a range of textures and relative doneness that I find to be one of the dish’s charms. This one is puffy with egg but bolstered by lots of leafy greens, with a garlicky edge that seems to infuse the air in this place. I love it.
Though you rarely see it listed this way on a diner menu, in Greek, spinach pie is called spanakopita, after spinaki—spinach—and pita, or pie. Spinach, says anthropologist Susanna Hoffman, author of The Olive and the Caper: Adventures in Greek Cooking, was unknown in Greece until the 1400s, when it was brought to Europe by Arabs. Prior to that, Greeks filled pitas with any of about 125 wild greens — watercress, dandelion, sorrel, grape hyacinth — collectively called horta. Herbs were foraged, too, and even today, Greeks flavor greens pies with a mix of aromatics: dill, of course, but also fennel, mint, parsley, even fenugreek leaves. Leeks can go in, too, to help balance the greens’ bitterness, along with chervil, an herb that translates to “aromatic” in Greek, says food scholar and cookbook author Aglaia Kremezi.
The same diversity goes for the cheese: feta, yes, but also mizithra — Greek ricotta —to balance the feta’s sourness; kefalotyri, like Greek sheep’s milk parmesan; or mild cow’s milk kasseri. “You use whatever cheese you have,” says Kremezi.
The point is, Greece’s greens pie is potluck — the savory result of whatever is free and at hand, either fresh in season or air-dried for winter months. “It’s a frugal thing, a convenience thing. You do it when you don’t have other things to cook,” says Kremezi. “It’s not something you would go out and eat.”
So how did the free-wheeling hortopita morph into the cheap-eats staple that is the spinach pie — both here and in Greece? Quite simply, says Hoffman, because Greeks discovered that, unlike their wild greens, they could easily cultivate spinach. “It was controllable,” she says.
But, still, there’s an element of mystery to a true Greek spinach pie, and that’s because, says Kremezi, unlike at Greek-American diners, where the spinach is typically sautéed or roasted first, cooks in Greece put raw spinach and herbs in their pies. “The filling cooks slowly inside, and the whole thing gets a much more interesting flavor,” says Kremezi. Since you can’t taste the raw-egg filling to adjust it before you bake it, and the flavor transforms in the oven anyway, “it’s never exactly the same. So it is a leap of faith.”
Faith and skill: You have to understand what tastes well together — expertise that’s not so important with the pared-down diner spinach pie. With just dill and alliums and feta to flavor the filling, the Americanized pie swaps complexity for bulk, with more eggs and spinach to add heft and height for a clean slice.
Perhaps the biggest deviation from tradition, though, is in the crust. In the States, the pies’ thicker, hand-rolled phyllo dough was swapped for another convenience, and for Kremezi, this is where most Greek-American pies truly fail. “The problem is that the diners usually use this store-bought, frozen phyllo,” she says, “which is terrible.”
It’s an insult to the form because, “pies are the Eastern Mediterranean equivalent of the sandwich,” says Kremezi. Just like bread, which cradles and also balances the rich interior of a po’boy or a hero, “the phyllo is quite as important as the filling, and it needs to complement the filling.”
Kremezi can complain. She lives on the Greek island of Kea — not a busy American city with a diner that’s full all day long. Hoffman, a Coloradan, is more forgiving of the diner pie. She describes a sort of Greek rendition of what happened with, say, Italian-American lasagna when it lost the bechamel and sofritto, but gained gobs of mozzarella and a towering profile.
“Americans wanted a fatter, thicker filling and probably less dill,” says Hoffman, “because it has not been that common here to be able to get fresh herbs. I think that’s basically what became of the diner pie, and of course, it’s tasty.”
She reserves her harshest judgement for the salad on the side. “It’s not the way Greeks would do it,” she says, “because everything in Greece is seasonal.” There, the salad changes depending on what’s available: cabbage in winter, radishes in early spring. “Greeks,” she says, “would not put tomatoes in that salad until August.”
The discussion of the origins of the diner spinach pie raises the question of the Greek connection to the diner altogether. “Diners used to be owned by Germans and Jewish people. In those days, the Greeks were the dishwashers. Most Greek guys who are 60 or 70 years old, even if they own five restaurants now, they started as a dishwasher,” says Steve Kanellos, the owner of Court Square Diner, a chrome-and-glass looker in Long Island City where the spinach pie, a dill-driven delight, has a little cottage cheese mixed in for lusciousness. “Somebody in your family brought you over, then you bring your cousin, and everybody ends up in the restaurants.”
His history is a bit wonky, but it’s got the right elements. According to Crain’s, many first-wave Greek immigrants at the turn of the 20th century worked in restaurants with bosses from other, earlier immigrant groups. As those owners aged out, Greeks bought in, building on the model of the kaffenion, Greece’s traditional coffee shop. By the 1920s, write Peter and Charles Moskos in Greek Americans: Struggle and Success, New York boasted 200 Greek-owned eateries, most of them modest places where urban workers could get a cheap meal. They kept the businesses in the family.
By the 1970s, following post-World War II immigration, 20 percent of American restaurants were Greek-owned. But American-born children weren’t keen to go into a business that kept them working 24 hours a day. So Greeks recruited family from overseas.
Today, on top of next-generation disinterest, skyrocketing rents and competition from fast-casual chains are taking a toll on the New York City diner. In November, The New York Times reported that there are half as many diners in the city than there were 20 years ago. Given the endangerment of the genre, I consider it my duty to cut a path through the city, from one delicious spinach pie to another, celebrating this dish and the Greek-American diners that begat it — before it’s too late.
In Brooklyn, at Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue Diner, I order a golden wedge. The feta is whipped in with chopped spinach for a filling as soft as pudding. It comes with the requisite salad and, delightfully, fries or rice. Old-timey photos of the neighborhood line the walls, matching the old-timey neighbors in the booths. In a display case behind the counter, monstrous red velvet, carrot, and chocolate cakes beckon. I ask the waitress who made the cakes. “It’s a local bakery,” she says. “It has a Greek name.”
I drive out to Staten Island, to the infamous “Disco Diner,” Colonnade, which sits on stilts with parking underneath. Here, Tony Monero wannabes hung out in the 70s, scarfing up burgers after the clubs. Today, Colonnade has dining on the deck and the cashier is surrounded by bottles of booze in a glitz-and-pink-neon interior, though the jukeboxes in the booths don’t work anymore since the electrical got swamped during Superstorm Sandy.
The Platis family that’s owned Colonnade for 42 years is Greek and the dense square of spinach pie is an eggy, cheesy winner — fresh from the oven and served with a serrated knife tucked underneath to ply through the crackly layers of phyllo. The lagniappes on the salad are pepperoncini and baby spinach.
Next, I hit Manhattan and visit a couple diners across the spinach pie belt of Midtown, uncovering its gems. The low-ceilinged interior of Chelsea’s Malibu Diner is depressing, but the pie makes me happy. It has a thick strata of feta running through a loose, dark-green bed, flavored profusely with fresh dill. The lemony Caesar-like house dressing drapes a salad including radishes.
Across town at the candy-striped Murray Hill Diner, a woman in the next booth kvetches into her cell phone while enjoying all-pale foods—mashed potatoes, soft-boiled eggs, an English muffin, milky coffee. My spinach pie is on the sweet side. The feta is creamy, rather than salty. The phyllo crust has a buttery luster. It lies in oven-browned waves atop a sprawling, spinachy ocean. The salad, with its fruity balsamic dressing, comes with Melba toast.
In 2015, Crain’s reported that there were 398 diners left in New York. There are more than 600 in New Jersey, where Greeks started opening diners in the 1950s. The oldest working one is in Summit. You can take New Jersey Transit directly to it and you should because it’s a beaut, as well as a spinach-pie standout. A railroad car-style icon sporting deco lettering outside with mahogany paneling and Italian marble inside, Summit Diner opened its doors in 1939.
Made in Elizabeth by O’Mahoney Company and rolled to its location — perhaps down the same tracks you can ride into town on for a visit — the present building replaced an earlier one from 1929.
With a history like that, Jim Greberis, whose family has owned it since 1964, seems like a latecomer. Compared to his cooks, he is. Vasilio Mazradis is 83. Jimmy Michaelos, 63, makes the spinach pie — which you won’t find on the menu because there is no menu here: just marker and push-letter boards above the counter stating what’s available each day.
Call ahead to make sure there’s spinach pie, but then don’t expect a square of it. This spinach pie is like a giant Hot Pocket. It’s an over-sized hand pie served with salad —anchovies and dolmades included, thank you. To hold the filling in as you pick it up, the crust is fairly thick, making for a filling-phyllo balance of which Aglaia Kremezi would approve. Mine is straight from the oven and aromatic. “It’s getting pretty popular,” says Greberis. “Some lady called yesterday. I sold her six this morning.”
As good as the one at Summit Diner may be, there is a New York-area diner spinach pie that is even better and it’s been hiding in the West Village right under my nose. The scene of post-party repasts since 1979, the Waverly Restaurant is a casual survivor in a neighborhood overrun by fancy bistros. With its polished-wood paneling and ceiling fans, it looks like a fern bar without the ferns. But the food is far better than anyone’s booze-addled, wee-hours palate deserves. Across from me, a young couple is enjoying a meal together: shrimp scampi for one gal, and Belgian waffle topped with fresh strawberries for the other.
I am marveling at the gorgeous way a good diner can satisfy such disparate yearnings all at once when my food arrives. Here, the salad is made with mesclun, and the tomato and pepper come in big, full slices. Along with a duo of dolmades, it’s topped with a sliced, hard-cooked egg. Then the pie: Slightly sour with lots of fresh dill and tangy feta, its sautéed spinach-egg-and-onion filling leans toward flavor over girth. There’s just the right amount and it’s wedged within sheets of phyllo dough that I swear must be hand-rolled. Thick, nutty, and crunchy from the oven, the phyllo comes from Titan Foods in Astoria, the largest retailer of Greek ingredients in the country.
“I use it because I feel it’s better than the regular phyllo. It’s more tasty, this old-fashioned phyllo, like homemade,” says Nick Serafis, 75, the Waverly’s owner. He should know. Back in his native Peloponnese, he was a baker. In the 1960s, when he immigrated to New York, baking wasn’t profitable. So he got into restaurants, and, smart guy, he bought the Waverly building on Sixth Avenue. That means, for now, his restaurant isn’t going anywhere.
“Nobody,” he says, “is gonna throw me out.”