Lake Grove Diner manager Peter Mitsos has added partitions inside the restaurant among other aesthetic changes for added safety of customers and employees during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

If you lost yourself for a moment, sitting in a booth inside Thomas’s Ham & Eggery Diner in Carle Place with a skillet of corned-beef hash, sun streaming through the windows and listening to the tap-tap-tap of spatulas in the kitchen — you could, at least for a split second, think everything was copacetic again.

Until the finer details come back into focus: The servers are all wearing masks, half of the tables are devoid of place settings, and between the booths are frosted-glass dividers. Instead of freshly brewed coffee, the air smells faintly of cleanser.

"There was a huge demand for them," said co-owner Alec Reyes, sporting his own black mask and motioning to the glass dividers, which costs several thousands of dollars to install. They were crucial in putting some guests at ease, he said, as COVID-19 continues to upend every aspect of running a place where people come to eat.

When the book is written about how restaurants survived 2020, diners could have their own hardscrabble chapter. Beholden to encyclopedic menus, easy prices and impromptu dining plans — which diner takes a reservation? — Long Island’s 100 or so remaining diners, the decades-old stanchions that have survived cycles of boom and bust and fleeting food trends, are still soldiering on. The new lockdown-addled climate runs counter to their identities as places where you can linger over an early-morning cup of coffee or arrive with a dozen friends for late-night omelets and fries.

The tents that have appeared outside many diners, where they most definitely never were before, can be jarring reminders of this disorienting cultural moment. At Thomas’s, which first opened in 1946, Reyes points to the west window, now partly blocked by the blue-and-white stripes of a tent erected at the end of June, when the diner reopened after a monthslong closure. Under its billowy top are a smattering of white tables and bamboo edging, the ambience not unlike that of a wedding cocktail hour. "The tent costs $1,500 a month [to rent]," Reyes said, letting that number linger in the air for a moment.

But with Thomas’s capacity reduced from 72 seats to 36 seats, both the booth partitions and the tent enabled the diner — where weekend waits can be epic — to reclaim critical seats.

Tents, picnic tables and gas heaters have also sprouted in varying configurations outside diners such as the Candlelight Diner in Commack, the Lake Grove Diner in Lake Grove and the Moriches Bay Diner in Moriches. Other changes, though, are more subtle, such as the removal of condiments from tables, truncated hours and the disappearance of daily specials. Amazingly, menus continue to run for pages — albeit disposable paper pages — and prices are largely unchanged. "I know a lot of people went to smaller menus, or package-style deals, but [our] customers want variety," said Spiro Nikolopoulos, owner of the Moriches Bay Diner, which has been doing business on Montauk Highway since 1994. Even with costs spiking for cleaning products, tent rentals and a raft of incidentals, Nikolopoulos was adamant about keeping his Monte Cristo sandwich at $9.95 and the roasted turkey platter, $14.50. "You have to have really good food at reasonable prices. You can’t overcharge customers, or you use the allure."

Patrons enjoy outdoor dining at the Candlelight Diner in Commack.

Patrons enjoy outdoor dining at the Candlelight Diner in Commack. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Like many owners, Nikolopoulos initially closed the place for a few weeks in the spring. "Like everyone else, we were afraid. Covid was new to us, and we wanted our staff and our customers safe," he said. Having spent most of his life in diners, however — and with the blood of an extended family of diner owners, from his grandfather and parents to aunts, uncles, and cousins running through his veins — Nikolopoulos was unable to stay put at home for long. "I couldn’t handle it. I had to go back to work. I said, ‘You know what I think, we’ll get through this.’"

Survival, he learned, necessitated tweaks both overt and subtle. He raised two tents outside, regaining some of the 75 seats he had lost inside to the half-capacity rule. He shaved an hour or so off each end of service, and migrated to paper menus — which are more expensive than the laminated menus he’d print every two or three years for $5,000.

Before this year, Nikolopoulos had never wanted to work with delivery services, somewhat affronted by the 30% cut some take. "I do all of the cooking and the labor, and diners work on a small margin!" he said.

But Nikolopoulos has since struck a deal with DoorDash to bolster his reduced traffic. "Takeout has increased tremendously from what it was pre-COVID. It took some getting used to. I have less servers now because I need people to be on the phone, taking orders," he said. Even with the added headache, he is not nearly ready to give up. "This is my calling, this is what I want. We are really grateful for our community, and our staff has been really loyal."

Fewer staff can also mean more harried staff. At the Candlelight Diner in Commack, running plates between the remaining seats inside — down to 110 from 219 — and a new outdoor area has come with hiccups, especially with staff down from 45 or so pre-COVID to 28. "It’s a challenge, with all of the precautions. The servers are wearing masks, the cooks are wearing masks, and they’re not machines," said co-owner Nick Konstantatos. "They need time to catch their breath. It all takes a little bit longer, but people have been patient."

Server Athena Moraitis at the Candlelight Diner in Commack.

Server Athena Moraitis at the Candlelight Diner in Commack. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

As at Moriches Bay, the menu has largely remained the same as before the pandemic, Konstantatos said; long before COVID, the kitchen had been adding items such as cold-brew coffee and pulled-pork sandwiches, to meet changing tastes. Konstantatos suggested adaptability is not the sole factor in survival, though — not now, or even before coronavirus arrived. "A lot of the diners that will stay in existence because they own the property and don’t pay rent to someone," he said. The Candlelight, first opened in 1969, is owned outright. "For someone just starting out, and to have rent … it’s almost impossible to be in the business."

Some diners and luncheonettes have not returned from lockdown, such as the Royal Oak Diner in Bellport or Flo’s Luncheonette in Patchogue, which opened in 2017 with a modernized diner-slash-luncheonette concept, including elaborate vodka-spiked milkshakes. Other hopefuls, though, are still jumping into the game, even during a pandemic. In late summer, Rise & Grind opened in Patchogue touting "breakfast with a twist," hinging on elaborate French toast and oversized eggs skillets, but also glass partitions between booths — a concession to COVID, which arrived when owner Philip Shum was still building Rise & Grind with his partners.

The now closed Royal Oak Diner in Bellport.

The now closed Royal Oak Diner in Bellport. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Farther west, Peter Glykos — part owner of the Lindenhurst Diner, where he notoriously debuted a parallel vegan menu — opened The Diner Boys in North Merrick in September. Don’t try to grab a booth — the concept does away with seats altogether. "It was my plan from the beginning," said Glykos, who grew up around his family’s diner and hedged that rising real estate costs might eventually make larger spots untenable on Long Island.

Inside Diner Boys’ 350-square-foot space, chef Nick Hannides’ team fires diner staples such as Reubens and grilled-cheese sandwiches, but also Impossible-meat nachos and bacon-cheeseburger tacos, from a compressed menu, all of it for takeout or delivery only. "We’ve made a change from what a diner used to be, instead of serving a million things," said Glykos.

The Diner Boys in Merrick debuted during the coronavirus pandemic...

The Diner Boys in Merrick debuted during the coronavirus pandemic as a takeout-only spot serving classic diner food to-go. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

For those craving old-school diner ambience, counter stools are still up for grabs, spaced amply apart, at places such as Thomas’s and the Lake Grove Diner. Inside the latter, new plexiglass booth partitions lend the inside of the place a gleaming, crystallized look. "We’re trying to do the right thing. We talked to people and thought, we have to do it. We worry about our customers," said manager Peter Mitsos.

The diner also put up a tent behind the diners, festooning the outside with flower boxes and firing up a gas warmer during chillier weather. Inside, the staff has introduced paper menus, removed condiments from tables, and wipes down each booth — from seats to partitions — between parties. Even so, Mitsos notes many people still feel nervous venturing inside and choose the tent, even during inclement weather. "Thank God [for the tent]. It can be raining and cold, but people don’t care. They don’t want to come in," he said.

The diner has also nixed its sometimes-elaborate daily specials and shaved an hour or two off the beginning and end of service, now opening at 8 a.m. and closing at 10 p.m. Takeout business continues to climb, and some regulars still show up. Even still, Mitsos sounds slightly gloomy about the winter. "This has hit everybody hard. If something doesn’t change, a lot of places are not going to stay open." He paused. "Nobody asked for this."

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