Expect the All-American Experience at Amanda Freitag's Empire Diner in New York City
The diner: There's probably nothing more American than an eatery where you can order pretty much any dish you want when you want it and not get flack for it. Whether that's an egg sandwich at 3 in the morning after a night out with friends, or lunch with the family on a Saturday afternoon, the diner has something for everyone. Early last year, Chef Amanda Freitag, co-host of American Diner Revival on Fridays at 10:30|9:30c, reopened Empire Diner in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. You may recognize the iconic eatery from movies and TV, and that's because it's been around since the mid-1940s. Since then it's gone through quite a few iterations and owners, but it's possibly never looked better than in the hands of Chef Amanda, who's taken the classic diner menu and given it a modern twist; it keeps customers coming back for more.
FN Dish recently caught up with the chef to chat about how she came to run the diner, what she loves about the menu and what customers can expect to experience.
FN Dish: How did you come to reopen Empire Diner? Being that it's such a Manhattan icon, what drew you to it?
Amanda Freitag: I live in the neighborhood and I saw that it was available actually, and I thought that it had already been leased and then I did further investigation and started negotiations and it was competitive, for sure. The great part about it is the landlord really wanted a team of people that were not corporate, that were not a big restaurant group; he wanted to keep it ... small-business owned and that is rare in New York City, and that to me is exactly what we're doing on American Diner Revival too. It's like, let's keep the small-business owners in business. Let's not have a bigger restaurant group take this over and just multiply these things all over the country. It was huge for me and the history and the people from the neighborhood that come in and talk about the stories of Empire Diner and ... the rewards of them saying, "Thank you for bringing it back." ... To get the name back — that took a little bit of effort as well — that was really important. So I think that as a chef it was a difficult move because it's diner food with a twist, but I think people want to eat that way right now, and I think the four-star, five-hour, white tablecloth dinner is not what people are going for anymore. They want to eat high-quality, chef-driven food in their local diner on the corner, whether it be in Chelsea or whether it be in Oklahoma. That's what they want. So it was really the right thing at the right time.
Do you think that's becoming a trend, bringing the high end and the low end of dining culture together?
AF: Yeah, I think that's really fun for chefs. Nine times out of 10 after work, if you ask a chef what they want to go eat, it's going to be, you know, a burger or fish and chips or a big bowl of pasta somewhere or some ramen noodles. ... They're not going to say, "I really want some foie gras right now." [laughs] ... We've probably been eating it all day. We've been cooking it and tasting it, so we want something else. I think the trend is totally that, [i.e.] chefs playing with food, making it approachable, in an approachable package but then with a surprising twist: OK, here's a hamburger, but look what's different, look what I did to it. ... The possibilities are endless — they're endless. It's fun.
Thinking about all that you've done to bring back Empire Diner, how has your own revival experience been redesigning it, coming up with the menu and evolving it?
AF: I think the menu is constantly evolving to see also what works in a small space with speed and efficiency with value on the menu. I think there are ... so many variables in a restaurant that people don't think about, and with a diner concept, we're currently there for breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner, with the ambition to do late-night and delivery, and it takes a village. [laughs] I mean, just staffing that is, like, this small town, so it's been a challenge, because I want to do more every day, and I have constraints of space and time and it's hard. ... And I see why diner menus are standards: because those standards work and they're satisfying and they're fast and they're efficient and they're affordable. So therein lies a challenge for me, as well, with the New York City rent and a large staff. The customers are not going to pay for that on the menu, because it's a diner, right? So we have to be very strategic about our creative menu items and our price points. And I think it's rewarding because of the fact that people get it and they appreciate it and they keep coming back, and we have wonderful regulars that just are, I mean, we've been open for a year and a half, [and] they're still thanking me: "Thank you, thank your for being in the neighborhood." "Thank you for being open." "We love you guys. We love that you're here." And all they want is more, really. Their only complaint is: "When are you opening for late-night?" "When can I get delivery from you guys?" I mean, that's the best compliment ever: "Just give us more." So I think my struggle is being able to do so, you know, in the best way possible [while] keeping the quality always. That's hard.
AF: That's impossible! It's like ... who's your favorite kid, you know? [laughs] ... I love the skate wings, because for me it was something that I had worked on that I had tried this dish before at another restaurant, tried to get it to where I wanted it. I tried it a couple of different ways before we opened the diner, and now it is what it is and people love it and I love it, and it's a surprise. ... My favorite kind of dish as a chef is to convert somebody to something or to make somebody love something that they never thought they would like, and so many people say: "Oh, I don't like skate wings. I don't like that." And then they eat this dish and they say, "I loved it." Or I've had people who don't eat meat but eat fish and they say: "Thank you. I've always wanted to have chicken wings and I don't know what it tastes like, and this is my new Buffalo wing." So dishes that really people mix and try things they've never tried before and/or say, "Thank you for doing that twist because I've always wanted that flavor." So I love that dish in particular. ... But, you know, sometimes I'll just have the grill cook make me a burger and it's just so satisfying. It's ... special sauce ... our own pickles ... lettuce and cheddar cheese, and the perfectly cooked burger and that bite, there's nothing like it. It's everything, like it's so satisfying. So I'll get down on a burger every once in a while. [laughs]
Your menu has a lot of great desserts, including some twists on classic favorites.
AF: Our desserts are great and it's just — I have to stay away from them because they're just so comforting and so good. I have a sweet tooth. I'm not a pastry chef by training, and I'm definitely not a patient pastry chef. But I just love those kinds, that chocolatey, chocolatey cake with layers upon layers. I love doughnuts. I just love rice pudding, which is, like, a diner staple. Those are things that just bring me back to my childhood instantly, so yeah, those. It's fun to be able to make those things. ... We just put on a new doughnut and it's a churroghnut [laughs], which is a cross between a churro and a doughnut, and it is just the lightest, airiest doughnut you'll ever have. And then there's chocolate mousse between the two doughnuts that we serve, and it's like having a churro dipped in chocolate sauce, but then having the best, like, cinnamon-sugar doughnut at the same time, so it's a little bit addictive. [laughs] So I have to stay away from them.
What kind of experience should your customers expect when they walk into Empire Diner?
AF: When the customers walk in the door at Empire Diner they're going ... to be turned into family and friends. They're going to come in and they're going to think that we know them — it's that kind of a feel. They're going to be welcomed in and they're going to be ... wowed by the fact that they walked into a place where they thought was just a diner. And this happens a lot. We have a lot of tourists over in that area and they walk out shocked and surprised and happier. You know, they came in with an idea of what they want in their mind, and they walk out like the food is better than they thought it was going to be, the service was better than what they thought it was going to be, they had a great glass of wine or a really cool draft beer or a delicious dessert. ... It was 10 steps above what they expected. And that's, to me, success. ... That's our job, to surprise our guest and make them feel like they're at home and that they're family and that they're going to come back. ... We all have had expectations all the time of everything, whether we're walking into a restaurant, a coffee shop or a clothing store. And it's like, you walk in with all these expectations and a lot of times you walk out disappointed. So for me it's about really excelling and surprising our guests.
What's been the most-rewarding thing for you about opening Empire Diner, molding it to where you want it to be?
AF: We're still not there yet. [laughs] You know, I'm still molding it every day. I still have a vision of what it will finally be when I'm totally happy with it, so I'm a perfectionist that way. And I think the most-rewarding moments, like I said, were just opening and having people in the neighborhood thank us. ... We have the diner cars, the front area, which is where our bar is, and then we have a dining room in the back, which feels like a family restaurant, and it has a mix of pictures of my family and my partner's family. Pictures of my dad, my grandparents, my mom are on that wall. And I walk in there every day and I get to see that, and that feels like home to me. People come and they're like, "Who's that?" "Is that your aunt?" "Is that your cousin?" "Oh wait, my dad went to that camp." [We have] a picture of all these people at camp. And I think it takes you out of the feel of New York City for a second and it makes you feel like you could be anywhere in the United States in any diner ... sitting in a big banquet under a bunch of pictures. I always think about diners that way. Some diners have these silly pictures of celebrities that came in ... Hollywood stars. It's just having those pictures of family there, that ... when those got hung that day, I was like, "OK, that was, like, the finishing touch." This now feels good. It feels warm. I think brand-new restaurants sometimes can just feel like a brand-new restaurant, and that felt like those have been there for years and are meant to be there.
What's your favorite place to sit in a diner: at the counter or in a booth?
AF: I love a booth. I will always tuck into a booth if I can, and I wish we could have more booths. ... The way the structure of the diner is, we could only have so many booths in it. ... I like to tuck into a booth, get comfortable and hang out. ... If it's by a window, even better. [laughs] And those booths at the window at Empire Diner to me are, like, the prime seats. They are. To sit there on a winter day and watch the snow come down and eat a good meal, it's the best.
AF: It probably was and we were probably in that movie. [laughs]