by Alecia Eberhardt
|All photos by Tom Smith.
Since the early 1900s, diners have been a staple of life in America. These establishments share a common ancestor with food trucks—the horse-drawn “lunch wagons” that visited businesses to take advantage of their employees’ midday hunger—and, like food trucks, diners have been experiencing a resurgence over the past five
years. Why? Well, it’s true that traditional American comfort food (like burgers, fries, and doughnuts) has undergone a transformation, becoming the icon of a hipster foodie lifestyle. But that transformation alone doesn’t explain why diners are still so popular. To understand that, you’ll need to make the trip to your local diner. The unironic old-school décor, the regulars seated at the counter, the extensive and infinitely customizable menu, the comfortable vibe, the witty banter between wait staff and customers, and the idea that you can sit as long as you like, sipping endless coffee refills—all of these factors define the true diner experience, which is ever more valuable in our world run by electronic communication and impersonal chain restaurants.
Through the Diner Porn project, which documents the world of the American diner through photography and written vignettes, my partner and I have visited dozens of diners in the Hudson Valley (not to mention the places we’ve tried while traveling without a camera). Here are a few of our favorites.
“Historic” Village Diner, Red Hook
Though “historic” is not technically part of this diner’s name, its been adopted since the diner was placed on the historic registrar in 1988. The diner itself, a classic Silk City model from Paterson, New Jersey previously known as the Halfway Diner, was built in 1927, and not much has changed since then. The tiny railcar-style space is as authentic as it gets, with a chrome exterior, original tiling, and neon signage. The menu offers classic diner food (try the sandwiches, like the tuna melt), and with its low prices, it’s a favorite of Bard students.
Eveready Diner, Hyde Park
Of the three Eveready Diner locations in the Hudson Valley, the Hyde Park location is by far the best. There’s a reason that the Eveready Diner is a favorite of Culinary Institute of America students—the food and the fancy cocktails, are no joke. (Try the banana split—it’s a huge, delicious work of art!) But the best part of the Eveready is the aesthetics. Though the diner is “younger” than most (it’s been in operation for about 40 years), the neon lights, retro signage, and bow-tied staff all call to mind a simpler time. Even the manager looks like he stepped right out of 1954. Perhaps that’s why the diner is so popular with its set of regulars, the ROMEOs—that is “Retired Old Men Eating Out.”
New Poughkeepsie Diner, Poughkeepsie
One of the best things about diners is the way that they bring a community together; diners are truly a democratizing force, where people of all walks of life cross paths. The New Poughkeepsie (or “Pok,” a regional nickname for the city) Diner is the perfect example: within the tiny dining car sits an excellent reflection of Poughkeepsie’s diverse community, actively engaged in what the Diner Porn team calls “inter-booth communication.” The owners run a friendly yet efficient operation, hustling hard behind the grill to serve their dedicated customer base and letting the wait staff do the talking. Plus, there’s no denying that they ladle up some truly delicious daily soups.
Honorable mention: Palace Diner, Poughkeepsie
Olympic Diner, Kingston
The location of the Olympic Diner (just off the Thruway at exit 19), the fact that it’s open 24 hours, and the signage along route 28 that reads “TRUCKS AND BUSES WELCOME” might prompt some to write it off as a typical truck stop. But the Olympic is quick to correct that notion, serving up chicken Hawaii, shrimp scampi, fettuccine Alfredo, and a variety of other non-traditional yet tasty options. And though the food certainly has a fan base, it’s the owners, Louie and Angie, who steal the show, treating their customers like family and creating an atmosphere where travellers and locals alike feel comfortable and appreciated.
Phoenicia Diner, Phoenicia
Since its renovation two years ago, the Phoenicia Diner has become somewhat famous, with mentions in Vogue and the New York Times. That’s no surprise—not only is the diner beautiful, with carefully restored mod details and stunning mountain views, but the food is also fantastic. As opposed to the extensive menu found in many diners, Chef Mel Rosas focuses on offering a small number of options that can be prepared fresh, with many items sourced locally. The mini cast iron skillets, featuring personal portions of grits, polenta, eggs, or corned beef hash, are a popular choice, and the coffee (roasted locally in Bethel) is strong and flavorful. Though there’s definitely a strong “Brooklyn” vibe here, the crowd is actually a diverse combination of weekenders and locals from all over the region, eating together in harmony. Get there early on the weekends—the parking lot is full by 11am!
Village Diner, Saugerties
Unlike some of our other favorites, the Village Diner looks fairly unassuming from the outside—it’s not “historic,” and it doesn’t have that characteristic chrome exterior that diner lovers can spot from a mile away. But the Village Diner is special for three reasons: the service, the community, and the food. The wait staff greets every customer immediately, telling them to sit wherever they like. The front section is definitely where the action is—the booths overlook Main Street, giving customers a front row seat to the Village of Saugerties, and the counter hosts a cast of regulars that the town knows by name. And it’s easy to see why the Saugerties community keeps coming back: the extensive menu offers huge servings of diner staples, like sandwiches and burgers, along with more creative dinner specials. Try the huevos rancheros—it’s not traditional diner food, but here it’s amazing.
Honorable mention: Deitz Stadium Diner, Kingston