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Sunny Side Up / Since Sept. 11, New Yorkers have renewed their love for the diner

Seated in one of the red, Naugahyde-covered booths, Mike

Burke shoveled the last few forkfuls of green salad from his plate. Between

mouthfuls, the mason from Woodside said he'd been coming to Jones Diner on and

off for about five years. The tiny eatery, one of the last original lower

Manhattan hash houses, is "homey," he said. The food, including lunch specials

like leg of lamb and meatballs for $6 to $7, tastes as if it came from his own

kitchen.

Chiming in from his perch at the flecked-gray Formica counter, Chris Porter

sang the praises of the 80-year-old, subway-car-size diner north of Houston

Street. "There's no other place around here you can get this," Porter

proclaimed, pointing to the piece of sweet Italian sausage on his fork. As a

student at the New York Academy of Arts in the early '90s, Porter fed on Jones'

hearty breakfast specials and blue-plate lunches. The Long Island City

resident was in the neighborhood recently on business and had dropped in for a

mid-day bite after learning that the diner's days at that location are

numbered.

Patrons still love the retro eateries known for their big portions and

comparatively low prices. And last year's terrorist attacks have only enhanced

their appeal. While the average restaurant saw its business melt some after

Sept. 11, diners have enjoyed an uptick in popularity, said Richard Kubach,

president of the National Restaurant Association. {CORRECTION: Richard Kubach

is a director emeritus on the board of the National Restaurant Association. A

story about diners in yesterday's Business & Technology pages incorrectly

reported his position. (pg. A02 ALL 6/18/02)}

Yet many independent diner owners face threats of their own. Skyrocketing

real estate prices, the attrition of aging owners with no relative willing to

take over the business, plus mounting overheads have caused scores of old-style

eateries like Jones Diner to call it quits. Some of them, long fixtures in the

city or along Long Island's main arteries, are being bought and relocated to

new communities hungry for old-fashioned eateries.

The independents face another threat: family-style restaurant chains and

fast-food giants, including Denny's, that have jumped into the fray with diner

knockoffs.

Independent diner owners are a breed unto themselves, many of them Greek

immigrants who started in the business washing dishes or busing tables. They

had a newcomer's tolerance for hard work and long hours. But their offspring,

generally more educated than their parents, cringe at the thought of putting in

the hours. So, with no interested family member, many long-time diner owners

simply hang up their aprons in their later years.

In their late 1950s heyday, diners numbered upwards of 5,000, said Daniel

Zilker, director of the American Diner Museum in Providence, R.I. Less than

half have survived.

Not surprisingly, manufacturers of the vintage, modular, stainless-steel

eateries also have dwindled dramatically. New Jersey alone boasted 17 diner

manufacturers at one time, Zilker said. Now only two remain in the state, and

five or six nationwide.

But the love affair, which cooled for a time when fast-food chains were the

new guys on the block, has been rekindled. People identify with diners to the

point where they've attained iconic status, quintessential Americana commonly

used as a backdrop for television shows like "Law and Order" and movies such as

"Diner," which established director Barry Levinson's career 20 years ago.

A second-generation owner of the Melrose Diner in Philadelphia, Kubach of

the National Restaurant Association said the bygone days that diners evoke

share much with the current situation: a war, a rise in patriotism and a

longing for less complicated times. "The attacks shocked folks into an

introspective search for the simpler things, feel-good things like family, a

sense of community and a place in their lives of constancy and familiarity

where they feel comfortable striking up a conversation with a total stranger,"

Kubach said.

Richard Gutman, a Boston-based diner consultant and author of "American

Diner Then and Now," said diners have become reminders of less-harried,

feel-good times when baby boomers were growing up.

Good times or bad, people don't stop eating out. In fact, well-run diners

often excel during economic downturns. More affluent patrons tend to trade down

from upscale restaurants to diners, and in turn diners benefit from the influx

of these higher-end customers who tend to spend more than traditional patrons.

"We've seen that during this latest down cycle and previous ones," Kubach said.

Jimmy Trahanas, who has been in the diner business for 30 years, currently

at the Golden Reef in Rockville Centre, concurred. "Good diners do well in all

economic cycles," he said. "People have to eat."

What constitutes a real diner, as opposed to a coffee shop or restaurant,

is in the eyes of the beholder. For Gutman, "diner" conjures up prefabricated,

stainless steel-trimmed, factory-built structures that serve a wide selection

of hearty comfort foods, breakfast anytime and sumptuous desserts. No question,

a storefront can capture those qualities, he said, but the railroad-car style

eateries that first appeared in Rhode Island in 1872 are forever etched in the

minds of most Americans as the definitive diner.

Except for the drab brick facade covering its original stainless steel

skin, Jones Diner is such a place. A speck of a place on the corner of

Lafayette and Great Jones streets in the middle of hip NoHo, the 48-seat eatery

- the kind of place that used to be called a "greasy spoon" - has fed cab

drivers, factory workers and tourists alike since the Depression. The prices -

a two-egg breakfast special with toast, juice and endless coffee for $3 ($4

with bacon, ham or sausage) - seem out of place in the upscale neighborhood of

luxury condos, high-priced restaurants and astronomical real estate prices.

Therein lies the predicament of co-owners George Serkizis and Alex Poulos.

Serkizis bought the diner in 1974, about a dozen years after arriving from

Samos, Greece. But the pocket-change prices that have kept his business

flourishing are killing him now. Looking to cash in on the rising fortunes of

the neighborhood, the landlord wants to rent the site to a developer with plans

to build a three-story, 24-hour restaurant. Serkizis said he would still be

able to make a living if his lease was renewed. But a developer recently was

granted the variance he sought to move the project ahead.

Serkizis said he cannot bring himself to ponder the future. "This place, it

is my body, my life." Poulos, the younger of the two, said he'll most likely

stay in the business although not in the city. "You've gotta stick to what you

know."

Jimmy Trahanas can relate. As the Golden Reef Diner grew busier with a

flurry of early-evening patrons, Trahanas, a co-owner of the 220-seat Rockville

Centre eatery, talked about life as a diner owner in a place that never

closes. "It's like I live here," he said.

Located on the north side of Sunrise Highway, the Golden Reef was

constructed late last year by DeRaffle Manufacturing Co. of New Rochelle, one

of the few surviving diner manufacturers. Before it opened in September, the

location was home to the Oasis Diner for about 60 years. Trahanas bought the

Oasis in 1982 for $450,000 after coming to America from Tripoli, Greece, 10

years earlier.

Joe and Mitzi Moscou reminisced how they used to stop at the Oasis for ice

creams and malteds. You could get either for a quarter back then, said Joe

Moscou, a retired trial lawyer. The Golden Reef's down-home dishes, such as

meat loaf and mashed potatoes, steaks and a selection of fresh fish, have made

them regulars. "We love it," Mitzi Moscou said. "We like the atmosphere here

and the service. The people are friendly, warm, helpful and accommodating."

While they continue to serve as neighborhood mainstays, diners are being

redefined on several fronts, said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a

Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm. Today's patrons are more demanding

than before. They want a wider variety of choices, more fresh foods, more

eclectic and ethnic foods and healthier offerings. And they want it quick.

Still, "there is life in the segment," Paul said. "It's just not vibrant."

Independents have an edge over their chain counterparts, he added, because they

have less staff turnover, and the food and the atmosphere tend to be more like

diners of old as opposed to chain restaurant sameness and upscale eatery

pretentiousness.

Brian Brownlee would rather avoid the plastic ambiance of high-end eateries

and cookie-cutter chains. Instead, he has chosen the Comfort Diner on East

45th Street in Midtown as his regular lunchtime place. He was seated at his

usual spot on a stool at the far end of the counter in the thick of lunchtime.

He scooped up the last spoonfuls of fluorescent green avocado and asparagus

soup. A legal secretary from Manhattan, Brownlee explained above the din of

clinking plates and cutlery and the boisterous chatter that his other choices

are limited to extremely expensive fare and fast food. "Here, it's reasonably

priced. It's noisy, but that's how real diners are."

"Real diners" must have some other ingredients, too, said Ira Freehof.

After more than 10 years learning the restaurant business, Freehof opened the

Comfort Diner in 1996. Two years later, he opened a sister diner on East 86th

Street. The feeling of authenticity has to be there, in the menu, the decor,

the staff or preferably all three, Freehof said. From the ceramic mosaic on the

floors to the fluted porcelain enamel panels in the front entrance, his East

45th Street place exemplifies the vintage diner, albeit in a storefront.

Confident in his formula, Freehof said his goal is to one day operate as many

as half a dozen Comfort Diners in Manhattan.

Traditional family restaurant chains also see a promising future in the

diner business.

Denny's has incorporated the diner concept in about 20 percent of its 1,700

restaurants nationwide, said spokeswoman Debbie Atkins. All 64 Denny's Classic

Diners feature stainless steel exterior with neon lighting, chrome-accented

decor and juke boxes. And the second format, 340 retro-style Denny's Diners,

boast art deco accents and juke boxes. The concept has been well received,

Atkins said. She wouldn't speculate on the number of diner locations that could

open up in the future because franchisees have an option of choosing a

location featuring the diner concept or the traditional Denny's family-style

restaurant.

For more than 25 years, Carmichael's Diner in Jamaica has jazzed up its

customers with drop-ins by the likes of tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and

blues legend B.B. King. From 7:30 every Wednesday evening, patrons can take in

jam sessions by local musicians as they dine on Southern standards like fried

chicken, catfish, grits, crab cakes, macaroni and cheese, candied yams and

collard greens.

The music, a means of attracting more and a broader array of customers, was

the idea of King Carmichael, one of seven brothers who own and operate several

other area businesses. As the former caterer for teams visiting the New York

Mets, the diner has held its own, Leroy Carmichael said. But there have been

difficult times, such as when King Carmichael, who relies on a walker now, was

shot seven times in a hold-up attempt.

One of the biggest concerns for independent diner owners, Carmichael and

others said, is not the perceived competition for the growing numbers of family

restaurant chains. More than anything, finding reliable workers is their bane.

Getting good people is always a challenge, especially those who will work

the night shift, said Kubach of the National Restaurant Association. "We try

to make it more of a career for people," he added.

To attract and keep good workers, many owners are offering employees

benefits such as 401(k) plans. Yet increasing benefit costs combined with

mounting overhead have made diner ownership increasingly difficult.

And since Sept. 11, insurance rates have skyrocketed as insurance companies

have passed on the costs they incurred in the disaster. Some owners Kubach has

talked to have seen increases up to 100 percent. His premiums have jumped 25

percent.

While reflecting some of the qualities and charm of dinerdom, some places

that used to be diners have now been transformed into something different.

Juanita Cooke's place, The Cooke's In, on New York Avenue in Huntington,

serves up food that captures the flavors of Southern, Caribbean and Italian

cooking. It's probably the only place you'll find jerk chicken served over

pasta, or jerk pork in a red sauce over pasta. The former South Huntington

sixth-grade teacher serves lunch and dinner in what was once the Colonial Diner.

Built in the early 1960s, the Colonial was a place where she and other

folks flocked to all hours of the night, Cooke recalled. Cooke has developed

quite a following and she seems to know just about everyone who walks in the

door. One recent evening, she welcomed a couple with kisses, and hugged the two

children in tow. "Oh my God," she shrieked as the family of four showed up for

an early evening dinner. "I can't believe you're here."

While The Cooke's In feels like a typical diner, the decor, the hours - 11

a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday - and the prices are

decidedly more like a restaurant. For example, lunch, including soup costs $7

to $10, and dinner entrees, served with a salad, corn pudding and collard

greens, run $11 to $15.

That the eatery is housed in a former diner and has a laid-back atmosphere

typical of the all-American diner was not by design, Cooke said. She simply

focused on one thing: "It's gotta feel like home, like family." Like a diner.

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