At night, just off Interstate 84 in Fishkill, NY, the neon sign glows at Red Line Diner, and its chrome glimmers with each passing set of headlights. Beautiful diners like these are common in the Northeast — this isn’t even the only one at that exit. They lure hungry or lonely passersby with a slim chance at what diners used to promise: decent coffee, tasty comfort food, late-night buzz, and warm conversation. When they aren’t good, you sit at a dead counter, watch the coffee drip into the pot, and imagine you’re in a better time, but this place, named for redlining a car engine at top speed, is not a mirage: The best time to be there is now.
On a recent Thursday night, inside the 250-seater, music from Boz Scaggs, Mark Ronson, Rihanna, and the Isley Brothers gave rhythm to the chatter. The waiting area was packed. Beside an empty seat at the counter, a man wearing gold chains, dog tags, a ponytail, and a handlebar mustache poured blue cheese dressing over his wedge salad. Co-owner Nick Vanakiotis chuckled from behind the counter.
“We call what he’s having the Ken salad. He’s the only one who orders it without the steak,” he says about regular customer, Ken De Rosa, a copy machine repairman and former Vietnam-era helicopter gunner. He smirked and continues telling the guy next to him about his grandfather’s grappa-making process. Wearing a sharp black polo and black jeans, Vanikiotis, in his late 30s, co-owns the Red Line Diner and the Daily Planet Diner with his uncles, Dino and Teddy Vanikiotis. His grandfather, an immigrant from the Peloponnese region in Greece, bought his first diner in 1981.
Next to DeRosa, an ex-champion bull rider named Sean Cook slurped a bowl of vegetable soup before continuing to the Adirondacks. Also at the counter: a smattering of coffee-drinking truck drivers, traveling businessmen, and recent divorcees from the adjacent Extended Stay Suites came and went; two girlfriends drank dirty Grey Goose martinis with sunny-side-up eggs while grinning mischievously and talking in hushed tones; and buzzed parents with a break from their kids exchanged kisses between sips of their mezcal margaritas. In the back dining room, large groups of high schoolers presided. “Last week, twenty of them took over that whole area to film a group TikTok dance,” says Vanikiotis.
Vanikiotis regularly encounters bikers eating pancakes; little and big league ball players watching games from a booth — Yankee legend Mariano Rivera stopped on his way to his Hall of Fame induction — and politicians stopping along the campaign trail — Bernie Sanders came with a Secret Service entourage for a tuna sandwich and a Diet Coke during his 2016 presidential bid. It can sometimes feel like waiting behind a red velvet rope to get a weekend seat: that the place is ten years old and thriving makes it an anomaly.
Nick’s uncle, Dino Vanikiotis, oversees the kitchen along with chef Ricardo Villa Campos. Dino graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1988. He orders most ingredients from Ginsburg’s in Hudson, a purveyor that sources from several local farms.
The restaurant’s comically large menu is part of the appeal. The burgers are juicy, the pastas are served al dente, and steaks ordered medium-rare come out pink in the center. Kids and adults love crispy fried mac and cheese balls on a plate of vodka sauce sprinkled with Parmesan. The dessert case, fountain, cocktail bar, and espresso bar are all just as extensive. Even the Italian cookies are moist and chewy.
Behind the bar, nine of the twelve taps pour popular local beer. On the shelf, they have wine and local spirits and a bottle of Martell for the one customer who drinks it, along with a double espresso. Under the counter, Vanikiotis usually keeps a bottle of Tsipouro.
To do so many things well requires training and staff: Low turnover is key. They’ve had four managers for twenty years across their two diners. Micci DeBonis, a waitress with full sleeves of tattoos and a blond bob, has been around since they opened and has a matched 401K. “During the Super Bowl, we wear like the jerseys and jeans,” she says. “We dress up for Halloween, and on New Year’s, we have Champagne. At Christmastime, customers bring nutcrackers and gifts for under the trees. We have the nutcrackers all lined up behind here,” she points at the shelf behind the bar. Three regulars nodded in agreement.
According to DeBonis, some of those regulars eat three meals a day here, and they all meet new passersby every day. While it would be easier and quicker to hit a rest stop drive-through window late at night, enough people still need human connection and a sit-down meal. The Red Line is bustling because people need it more than ever.