Descended from 19th-century railroad dining cars but ushered into their prime by Greek restaurateurs in the 1950s, diners were once a major part of the city’s culinary landscape. But lately such notable specimens as Georgia Diner, two Market Diners, and Hudson Diner have been closing like clockwork. Where once they were the working-class bedrock of city eats, providing food that was plain, predictable, and cheap, they now seem headed for dodo-like extinction. Not only have real estate prices been at fault, but the public’s taste in food has changed, becoming more eclectic than what the traditional diner menu could provide.
Which is why I stood up and took notice when I heard a place called Soho Diner was debuting on West Broadway. Attached to the Soho Grand Hotel, and thus at least partly a hotel dining room, it is presided over by chef Ken Addington, formerly of Five Leaves. (What diner has a chef?) Yet it incorporates aspects of the traditional diner, including twirling stools flanking a lunch counter, behind which milkshakes and cappuccinos are concocted. Orange Naugahyde booths and retro light fixtures recall the design of diners past, though in plusher form.
Indeed, Soho Diner is part of a reworked diner revival going on in the city, started in part by Williamsburg pioneer Diner’s opening in a real Pullman dining car in 1999 and now encompassing such restaurants as queer-friendly MeMe’s Diner in Prospect Heights and Golden Diner under the Manhattan Bridge.
But Soho Diner, with its plan to remain open all 24 hours, is a rarity downtown — filling a late-night need that classic diners once satisfied. Customers have thronged the place, and it’s busy even on a Monday night. Soho Diner is a direct evolution of the classic diner, though one that violates some of those principles through things like price, lack of sides with entrees, and a certain fussiness to the food.
People have tried to open an updated diner in this area before. Caught between Chinatown and Soho, Nickel & Diner opened in 2017 and closed two years later, after attempting dishes such as veal breast Reuben; faro, quinoa, and black bean salad; and a BLT with heirloom tomatoes and a truffle vinaigrette. Despite some high points, the food was perturbingly uneven and sometimes downright bad.
My first meal at Soho Diner was promising, though. As with an old-school diner, the menu spanned burgers, egg breakfasts and pancakes, meal-size salads, and bigger entrees that ran to salmon, steaks, a schnitzel, and a pot pie. There was even a soda fountain menu that offered a vegan matcha milkshake. A section titled “Classic Sandwiches” included roast turkey, grilled cheese, fried chicken, a BLT with avocado added, and a ramped-up tuna melt with, perhaps too predictably, fresh tuna instead of canned.
The so-called mean green chicken wings — subtitled “not for the faint of heart” — were the high point. Painted with an alarmingly green sauce, they had a flavor that fell somewhere between Indian cilantro chutney and Mexican salsa verde, packing a prodigious chile wallop. A friend and I were left giggling and fanning our mouths, after eating a serving that seemed almost reasonably priced at $14. So, too, were the garlic shrimp ($18) nearly Cajun; we eagerly sopped the light but pungent broth with the toasts provided. The only disappointment that evening was a turkey pot pie ($22) with too many peas, causing us to peevishly remove them like picky children.
But my impression of the restaurant quickly went south. On further meals, dishes came out sloppily executed, and sometimes demonstrated Top Chef-y flourishes that saw extraneous sauces and garnishes added that did little for the dishes themselves.
Though the beef on weck sandwich, an imported Buffalo classic, was a solid entry, a cup of broth on the side caused my dining companions and I to scratch our heads. The sandwich emphatically wasn’t a French dip, and it was already messy enough with an overflowing dressing of horseradish sauce. A matzo ball soup, part of the Jewish sub-theme to the menu, arrived browner than the classic deli version, a result of the kitchen cooking it like ramen soup until the broth is dark, according to our server. We fished around in the depths and discovered noodles that had been browned before boiling, making what should have been a clear consommé into a noodle soup that looked and tasted something like mud. At $14, the bowl was also stingy in size, bobbing a single lonely matzo ball.
More traditional items also fell short at times. Our iceberg wedge salad ($18) came with a badly cooked egg uselessly flopped across the top, the white still translucent and runny. A decent dressing loaded with chunks of blue cheese nearly redeemed it, but upon removing the egg, we discovered the lettuce was a little brown underneath. An accompanying chocolate milkshake ($10) was ample in size and plenty chocolatey, but it had the thin consistency of a Boston frappe, as if the ice cream had been stinted on.
Things looked up somewhat from that point. A burger that came with a choice of cheese was perfectly cooked to a medium rare and made with good beef. A pork schnitzel ($26) was well crumbed and tender, big enough to satisfy a big appetite. It was partly covered with an entirely undressed salad, suggesting the greenery was meant to be left behind on the plate. And consistent with the diner aesthetic, there should have been at least some starch on the plate. No “blue plate specials” here.
Indeed, in visiting Soho Diner three times, I discovered too many flaws to really recommend it. There was an element of cynicism about the food, in the avoidance of free sides, and in the imperfection of the offerings, as if no one was standing at the pass and checking dishes as they came out of the kitchen — as if the word “diner” in the name were a license to turn out mediocre food at elevated prices.
It’s not that the concept of a classic diner can’t evolve and become more relevant with today’s eating public. In a comparative visit to Golden Diner, I found the food much better there — more like a diner in both appearance and menu, pleasingly expanded with Mexican and Korean flourishes, and cheaper, too.
At least Soho Diner’s desserts were exemplary, including a cheesecake with a top layer of toffee and a cherry pie ($10, a la mode $14) said to be filled with New York cherries. Both, though, were not made in-house, instead pulled in from Petee’s Pies. As the rare dining institution downtown open 24 hours, Soho Diner can be a fun place for a cup of (bad) coffee and piece of pie, or perhaps for the green chicken wings and maybe the beef on weck. As an extension of the classic New York diner, though, it does a cruel disservice to the institution it seeks to emulate. 320 W Broadway, between Grand and Canal streets, Soho.