Certain things make Long Island what it is: Sandy beaches, for one, plus bagels and traffic and boisterous late-night trains home from the city.
And then there’s using both hands to balance an encyclopedic menu at a Formica counter or vinyl booth, followed by tucking into an enormous Greek salad, ice cream float or wedge of pie ordered from a theatrically lit glass case.
At least that’s the time-honored experience inside Long Island’s diners and luncheonettes, scores of which dotted the island during their mid-20th century heyday. As with all things, though, indigenous diners and luncheonettes have had to evolve to survive. While some have been taken over by restaurants of other genres — such as sushi bars or barbecue joints — others have swapped Formica for marble, bright lights for dimmer ones and ice cream sodas for booze-laced milkshakes.
A new wave of luncheonettes and diners has been cropping up on Long Island, one fueled by the migration of chefs into more casual eateries, a reignited love of breakfast (and brunch) among 20- and 30-somethings and the unstoppable spread of the farm-to-table concept.
“The world has expanded considerably when it comes to the diner concept and how far you can stretch it,” said Richard J.S. Gutman, the Massachusetts-based author of four books on diners and a consultant on nearly 100 diner-restoration projects. “Once, when you saw a diner, you knew what it was because of how it looked, and you knew what to expect. In this day and age, you could try and have a rigorous definition of the diner, but it wouldn’t suffice.”
While diners trace their roots to New England lunch wagons of the late 1800s — and through the era of prefabricated, stainless-steel structures plunked down in towns such as Mineola and Cutchogue — luncheonettes, by contrast, had their genesis as lunch counters inside department and variety stores like Woolworth’s.
Both shared a few hallmarks: Counter and booth seating, menus anchored by comfort food, and breezy service. And both began to morph as far back as the 1970s, when New York City’s Empire Diner was renovated into a hot spot, Gutman said. The trend gained strength in the late 1980s, when Bob Giaimo and Ype Von Hengst birthed the Silver Diners of the Washington, D.C., area — places that “bridged the gap between tablecloth restaurants and fast food,” according to their website, with a chef-driven philosophy and locally sourced food.
The concept arrived on Long Island in 2011, when chef Steve Cardello and his wife, Jessica, took over a diner in the center of Kings Park, began using organic eggs for omelets and serving a re-imagined version of diner fare, from broccoli rabe-and-roasted pork sandwiches to bananas-foster milkshakes, at a spot called Relish.
In the years since, chef-driven luncheonettes and diners have slowly percolated here. Connor Vigliotta, who with his brother David Vigliotta opened Flo’s Diner in Patchogue in late 2017 (an extension of the original Flo’s in Blue Point), affirmed this. “We basically wanted it to be the new modern diner and new take on what a diner or luncheonette is,” said Connor Vigliotta. “At Flo’s, you can get your burgers and pancakes but also things like French toast bites and boozy milkshakes, and there is a bustling late-night scene on weekends. We didn’t want this to be the typical greasy spoon.”
The elements of the revamped luncheonette/diner concept often are similar: A chef-driven menu with dishes such as chicken and waffles, and avocado toast; artisanal coffee; and a bar that sometimes doubles as a dining counter. “At Hatch, we made the bar the focal point,” said Mark Lessing, executive vice president of Lessing's, a family-run company that owns several restaurants around Long Island. Lessing’s chose to dive fully into the luncheonette space with the kinetic, colorful brunch spot Hatch, which opened in Huntington this spring. “We wanted to create something very different from what Long Island has to offer, and that’s what inspired us.”
Lessing thinks increasing numbers of remote workers may be fueling breakfast and brunch culture. “People like breakfast, and when they’re working from home, they can come out to get it,” he said.
Recently, Steve Cardello handed the Relish reigns over to another chef, Brian Finn (formerly of Huntington’s Storyville), and Finn seems as enamored of the luncheonette space as his predecessor. He doesn’t plan to dramatically change Relish’s farm-to-table, scratch kitchen ethos, though he’s begun rolling out his own specials and will soon introduce dishes such as fresh pastas. “We have a lot of people who eat here two, three times a week,” said Finn. “We want to keep the food fresh and simple, fun yet inexpensive. You can come in here and get a product that people took the time to source and cook properly. It’s not a gastropub, and it’s not a diner. I don’t know — maybe it’s a diner-ette?”
Whatever label you chose, here are four re-imagined “diner-ettes” that have landed on Long Island in the past year.
Broadway Market (643 Broadway, Rocky Point): Broadway Market, which opened in April 2017, feels like the nexus of multiple trends: Blinged-out doughnuts are in the pastry case, grass-fed burgers are on the menu, and kombucha and cocktails are on tap. Exposed ductwork, barn wood and gleaming subway tiles make the space feel immaculate, but the soul of the place is solidly New World luncheonette. This was the vision of owners Ann Olenick and Shasho Pole — a baker and a producer of pastured meats, respectively — who hatched plans for Broadway Market while sharing a stand at the Rocky Point Farmers & Artisan Market. They spent a year building a spot where you could indulge some finely tuned comfort food, such as burgers and Dutch baby pancakes, made with sustainably raised and grown ingredients. Instead of a counter, Broadway Market has a bar where you can sip a white Negroni or a craft beer; instead of a squashed roll, a breakfast sandwich of fried egg, maple bacon and Mornay sauce comes on a pristine house-baked brioche. Roasted chicken is marinated in buttermilk before being burnished to a coppery brown; burgers are made with grass-fed beef; and that Dutch baby comes smeared with dulce de leche. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner Wednesday to Saturday, and brunch on Sunday. More info: 631-849-1729, bmropo.com
Roasted lemon chicken with roasted potatoes, caramelized onions and broccoli rabe at Broadway Market in Rocky Point.
Hatch (286 Main St., Huntington): This airy new mecca to breakfast and brunch has been packing them in since the day it opened in late April 2018. Some of Hatch’s magnetism may stem from its striking décor, including a moody blue-gray facade (with a neon yellow door), funky lighting, yolk-colored leather booths and a centerpiece bar — above which hangs a neon sign that reads “My happy place.” The bar doubles as a counter where you might snag a seat to avoid the hourlong weekend waits, as well as tuck into a sturdy “New York classic” breakfast sandwich layered with scrambled eggs, cheese and smoked applewood bacon on a springy everything-bagel-style brioche. Hatch closes at 3 p.m. daily, so most dishes are breakfast-themed — from six kinds of eggs Benedict (including one layered with prosciutto and taleggio) to buttermilk pancakes that come draped with vanilla-rum crème Anglaise and caramelized pineapple. Coffee is sourced from Huntington neighbor Southdown Coffee, and the breakfast booze territory includes blood-orange mimosas and a rye-laced chai latte. Open daily for breakfast and lunch. More info: 631-424-0780, hatchbrunch.com
Pineapple upside-down pancakes topped with house-made vanilla rum creme anglaise, caramelized pineapple and cinnamon butter at Hatch in Huntington.
Flo's (38 W. Main St., Patchogue): At almost 92 years old, Flo’s luncheonette in Blue Point is one of the island’s most beloved nonagenarians. But with nearby Patchogue buzzing, brothers Connor and David Vigliotta opened a Flo’s satellite here in 2014 — then eventually moved it to West Main Street in late 2017. Flo’s 2.0 has a next-gen vibe, with artfully weathered booths, dramatic brick and woodwork, and a bar that’s hopping late into the night each weekend. “We have that history of being in Blue Point for 90 years, but we morphed it all into this modern atmosphere,” said Connor Vigliotta. “We’ve elevated the food and the atmosphere.” At the newest Flo’s, that translates to Nutella-banana waffles, booze-laced milkshakes, lobster mac-and-cheese, and brisket-topped poutine — plus acai bowls and veggie skillets. The atmosphere can get spirited on weekend nights, when Flo’s bar stays busy until 1 a.m. and breakfast-themed cocktails flow, including a blend of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky and RumChata rimmed with cinnamon cereal. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. More info: 888-356-7864, flosfamous.com
A crabby patty mash smothered with two sunny-side-up eggs plus caramelized onions, charred peppers and spicy serrano hollandaise at Flo's in Patchogue.
The Shed (54 New St., Huntington): The Shed may not call itself a luncheonette, but it has many of the hallmarks — all day breakfast, bracing coffee, burgers topped with melted American cheese — then plays with those elements to invent something new. Instead of a Formica counter, there’s a handsome bar backed by dozens of craft spirits. Instead of greasy eggs and bacon, there are eggs Benedict and gluten-free almond-flour pancakes. And the ambience is solidly chic and homey, from rabbit-covered wallpaper and vivid art to woolly blankets on the patio. “[Huntington’s] got a . . . metropolitan feel, and it needed a place like this — this price point, this flexibility,” said co-owner John Tunney when The Shed opened in late 2017. “You can get a burger with freshly ground beef, a healthy rice bowl, eggs for dinner.” Healthy indulgence is a theme at breakfast — which doesn’t start till 11 a.m. during the week — with dishes such as creamy avocado toast topped with slivered watermelon radishes or a lighter-than-usual French toast. Lunch and dinner bring chicken and waffles kissed with fiery habanero honey, toast smeared with burrata and bourbon-laced Shed lemonade. Open daily for brunch, lunch and dinner. More info: 631-385-7433, intheshed.com
A Reuben sandwich stacked with corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut — plus a tall Bloody Mary with pickled vegetables — at The Shed in Huntington.