At 7 a.m., a server takes the first order — hot open turkey sandwich, extra gravy, mozzarella sticks, with a side of Boston cream pie — shortly after the doors open. For the next 16 hours, as it has for the last forty-some years, New York City comes to the Waverly Diner.
The day includes a morning visit from first-timers in a window booth. They’re followed by a group of contractors in a hurry. Across from them, a young daughter sits across from her father, downing a packet of pancake syrup while waiting for her Rice Krispies. A patron heads to the wood countertop in the back to chat with a manager.
Since 1979, the neon sign has burned on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place, calling to New Yorkers in search of breakfast, early dinners, afterparty comedowns, and late mornings-after. The menu at the Waverly plays like the world’s best jukebox. Its unabridged menu carries all the hits: stacked buttermilk pancake, Challah french toast with burnt edges, greasy patty melts with American cheese dripping off the sides. Scattered among classics there are concessions to the 21st century, like the avocado specials laminated in the middle of the menu, before veering back to its own timeline with the sautéed specials on the next page.
Every third customer at breakfast seems to know to order the fried egg with hash browns and sausage, or the Western omelet with ham and green peppers. Beyond the breakfast classics, there’s a bacon, egg, and cheese, a towering turkey club, and a well-prepared cheeseburger paired with steak fries.
“Everybody has to be on their toes all the time, because everything has to be fresh,” says Christine Serafis, co-owner of the Waverly Diner.
Then there’s Waverly’s tidy selection of Greek dishes, including a spanakopita that can stand up to its Astoria cousins, and two kinds of souvlaki, recipes courtesy of its long-time assistant manager, a Greek immigrant who came to New York originally to study mathematics.
Like the city, the Waverly’s is an immigrant story. Greek sailor Nick Serafis came to New York on shore-leave in the ‘60’s and, falling in love with Manhattan, he decided to stay. Serafis didn’t come from a restaurant family, but tired of the construction jobs, he looked for something that matched his outsized personality. At the time, the building at the corner of Waverly and Sixth Avenue was already landmarked, occupied by a diner called Twin Brothers, itself an institution. Serafis bought the space, renovated, installed the now iconic neon sign, and the Waverly Diner was born. Christine recalls sitting outside the diner with her father as the Gay Pride Parade passed through in the early ’80’s.
After decades of working at the Waverly, “I have seen some people like 23 years-old, 25 years-old. They come to pay, and they say ‘Oh, do you remember me?’,” says John Captan, a fellow Greek immigrant and co-owner who has worked at the diner since the early ’90’s. “They’ll say, ‘I was here with my mother when I was three years old. And you know, you gave me a lollipop.’”
Ask Captan for a favorite story, he shrugs and says, “Name something that didn’t happen inside here.”
“Someone got murdered.” I said. “No, you lost,’” he says.
Fire? “It happened.”
Sex? “It’s happened many times.“
Marriage? “Proposals, really, many times.”
Save for a few months in the pandemic, the Waverly has been there for customers on New Year’s, Thanksgiving, and Christmas every single year since its doors opened. Like New York, the Waverly has seen its share of triumphs and scandals, serving customers during the blackouts in the ’80’s, during 9/11, and through Hurricane Sandy.
More recently, it faced a withering lawsuit from former staff asserting wage theft over multiple years, which led to the Waverly declaring bankruptcy. It was around this time that Nick Serafis transferred ownership to his daughter and staff. They declined to comment on the 2018 lawsuit beyond saying, “it was extremely hard.” Shortly thereafter, Serafis died.
Fast-forward a few years to COVID, and the once 24-hour diner decided to reduce its hours to survive. Dine-ins stopped and the neon sign went dark from disrepair. The diner switched to delivery, checking up on its elderly customers, many who came to the Waverly daily. Today, the Waverly is still recovering from the aftereffects, including cost and rent inflation that beset many small businesses (though according to a 2016 report, the previous operators owned the building). After so many years of running 24 hours, it’s now limited to 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays and 1 a.m. weekends.
The small team that’s been running the diner since 2018 has been together here in one way or another for twenty years, starting at 4 a.m., seven days a week. Between greeting regulars and seating newcomers, staff take pains to point out the fresh spinach and pine nuts in the spanakopita; the Angus beef in the burger; the house-made pancake mix; the shortcuts not taken.
There does not seem to be a dead period for the diner, only ebbs between waves of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A group of six students crammed into a booth. A harried looking man with scribbled papers spread around his omelet. For now, the marathon keeps on going. Captan points to the neon sign, soon to be illuminated again, in a sign of the times, with LEDs. There are regulars to check on and newcomers to welcome.
One of the long-time regulars, Steve, stopped by the corner booth to say hello. “I’ve been coming here since it was Twin Brothers in the ’60’s.” he says. “And I’ve been coming here to Waverly every day since it opened.”
“I was here in the ’80’s too,” a man in the next booth chimes in. He says he left for Sweden a decade later, and today, he’s visiting with his Scandinavian partner, in town for a couple of weeks. “When you’re down here and you want a cheeseburger plate, there’s nothing better than this diner.”
“Waverly gave us community,” the man says. “The world feels smaller here.”