Riverhead diner marks 80th anniversary
While many businesses on Riverhead's Main Street have come and gone over the years, the historic, stainless steel Riverhead Diner & Grill has managed to last for eight decades.
The Riverhead landmark celebrates its 80th anniversary Monday, and to mark the occasion it will serve free cake and coffee on Thursday, delayed a few days by the "Frankenstorm" bearing down on the Northeast.
"We couldn't have made it without the support of this wonderful community," said Liz Strebel, 64, who has owned and operated the diner since 1973, when she bought it from her father, Joe Strebel, and her uncle, Frank Strebel.
They bought the diner in 1961 from Greek restaurateur John Moustaka, who ran it 24 hours a day, and served breakfast to local fishermen. Since then, generations of families have eaten there. The diner opened in 1932.
Liz Strebel, of Center Moriches, started working for her father at 17.
"I wanted to be a secretary, and I had a job at a bank in Center Moriches, but I'd come over after work and see my dad cooking in the short order box by himself, and I'd help him on the grill," she said. "It got to be that he depended on me, so I eventually gave up my job at the bank and worked here full time, cooking and waitressing."
Her son, Erick Williams, and ex-husband also helped with the cooking, and her three sisters, Betty Strebel, Tootsie Kruszon, and Josie Prudenti, also helped in the kitchen.
"It was a fun place to be. . . . We made our family recipes of meatloaf, pot roast, soups and desserts, and when Betty and I worked the 6 a.m. breakfast, it was like a truck stop -- we had all the local contractors at the counter," Liz Strebel said.
When she started in the 1960s, a meatloaf dinner cost 90 cents. Today it is $8.75. "We still use real potatoes, and we still make all our own pies and puddings here," she said.
"The beauty of this place is its real food -- not frozen or microwaved," said Jerry Steiner, an optometrist in town. "My grandfather ate here five days a week for the stuffed cabbage, and we'd always have the cheesecake. This is the way Riverhead used to be, when every store was filled -- a booming town with little Mom and Pops."
Strebel has a book of old menus, which she typed and hand-wrote with calligraphy.
A menu from 1970 showed the price of a hamburger was 75 cents, and today it is $5.50. A cup of coffee then was 20 cents, a beer was 50 cents, a fillet of sole dinner was $1.45 and a bay scallop dinner was $2.25. Wednesdays, the diner still serves a hash and egg special all day, and makes fresh hash every day.
Former Riverhead police Chief Joe Grattan, who ate in the diner often during his 38 years on the force, remembers a call to handle an irate customer who was disturbing the peace.
"Liz wanted him out of here, and he was giving her a hard time, so she threw a plastic ketchup bottle at him, and her sister jumped on his back, and he ran out covered in ketchup," he said.
Karen Crowson, 65, has been a waitress there for 26 years.
"What kept me going all these years has been the people I work with -- it's like a big family," she said. "And we know practically all our customers by name."
Richard Wines, chairman of the Landmark Preservation Commission, said the diner is part of a third-of-a-mile section of Main Street with businesses that qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places.
"But the Riverhead Diner is a landmark by itself, with its modern, shiny stainless steel interior and exterior, and its Formica ceilings, countertops and tables," he said.
An addition was built onto the original 1932 diner in 1937, with a large stainless steel front room and Formica counter, which was trucked in in one piece from New Jersey. In the 1950s, the diner, on wheels, was moved one block to its current location at 87 E. Main St.
At a special gathering of local customers last week, members of the Riverhead Town board presented Liz Strebel with a proclamation honoring her diner's 80 years in business.
"I saw you covered in Clorox, scrubbing the floors down many days, and you've really helped to bring this town back to life," town Councilwoman Jodie Giglio told Strebel. "And -- oh yes -- the chop steak is also my favorite."