Pies were once the province of diners: If you went into one a dozen years ago, you would have probably seen a vertical rotating glass case right by the front door aligned with pies and cakes. In those days, dessert after dinner was a given, and in a diner, that dessert was probably pie.
Diner pies went through some changes years ago as items like whoopie pies, tiramisu, baklava, and giant chocolate chip cookies wrapped tightly in plastic, replaced pies at lots of places, with many ditching the rotating case entirely.
(Editor’s note: I went to at least ten and saw mostly empty pie displays if they still existed at all. Even high volume places like East Newark’s Tops, with its 15,000 customers a week, only has one pie option, key lime — MM.)
Most places offer two or three types, though they are no longer seductively displayed in cases. Apple seemed to be the universal favorite, since it would inevitably be sold with a scoop of vanilla ice cream at an additional charge.
The champion pie purveyor turns out to be the modernist Remedy Diner on the Lower East Side, where the sprawling interior channels a 1960s vibe in every detail, but the traditional menu has been expanded to include goat cheese and beet salad, Baja fish tacos, and a salmon BLT in addition to the usual diner fare.
The restaurant serves seven types of pie and I order all of them. My order astonished the waiter, who had to bring the manager over to verify that I was serious.
Well, these pies were not the greatest in the world — few can survive long entombment in the refrigerator — but they were edible, and some were definitely more edible than others. Here are the pies, in order of preference. All slices of pie were $5.50.
Apple pie: I have found this pie to be the best bet in nearly any diner. The apples survive any abuse and remain firm, whereas other fruits semi-liquify. Also, the bland apples exalt a mediocre crust, which can become almost cakey in texture.
Cherry pie: Cherry pie reeks of seasonality, even though the filling is doubtlessly shaken from a can with corn starch a principal ingredient. This makes the filling wobbly in an engaging sort of way, and the cherries retain a tartness, in spite of everything. And, hey, isn’t cherry the prettiest pie?
Blueberry pie: This selection retains the color saturation, and the berries are small enough that they could even be huckleberries. The flavor is more subtle than the cherry slice and not so tart.
Apple crumble pie: Why is this slice inferior to the plain apple pie? Well the crumb coating, if it had been just out of the oven, would have elevated the pie, but as it was, the topping became sodden in the fridge, and it couldn’t make up for bland apple filling.
Banana cream pie: If anything has suffered the most in the decline of the diner pie, it is the icebox variety. Once they stood proud with their white bouffant of what was often Miracle Whip. And it wasn’t unusual for a diner to have banana cream, coconut cream, lemon meringue, chocolate, key lime, peanut butter, and others. Now, the pies are rarely offered, and the actual filling shrunk to almost nothing, though the few slices of banana inside bravely soldier on.
Pecan pie: This broken-down slice of pie finds the pecans mushy and receding into the corn syrup filling, and, even worse, the pie tastes slightly of orange rind, which is not what one expects in a slice of pecan pie.
Key lime pie: The color was right, but when I bit down into the first bite, it had the texture of cheesecake and no — Key or otherwise — lime flavor.
Conclusion: If you must have pie in a diner, order apple or berry.