My New York Obsession

The Usual

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name—and how your kid likes her eggs. Enter the neighborhood diner.

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I have always leaned on a good diner. Ever since moving to New York as a 20-something who quickly discovered diners were all I could afford for a meal out, I was in. The homeyness and basic-in-a-good-way quality of the menu items (omelets, french fries, burgers) reminded me of my family kitchen, while the vastness of the choices reminded me of the rare treat of getting almost anything I could imagine from room service when we went on vacation. (Inevitably that “anything” turned into an omelet, no matter the hour.) 

Diners were also the perfect hangover-recovery-and-night-recall/gossip-exchange location with friends, a place where the conversation inevitably centered around trying to figure out what we possibly didn’t drink the night before.

Now the diner is a place I take my toddler daughter, especially when it’s too cold for a stroll in the park. When it’s my turn to take care of her in the (early) morning and I don’t want to wake my husband, the diner it is. No matter the weather, our local diner is an easy place to pop into, especially since we don’t have a playroom in our prewar building.

For years I didn’t want to go into our neighborhood diner on the Upper West Side. It looked a little dingy and depressing, and the clientele reminded me of the “Oh, Hello” guys, without the jokes. But one time I was coming home late and everywhere else was closed, so I went in and ordered a turkey burger deluxe (with fries and an onion ring thrown in). I have practically never left.

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I am such a frequent visitor now that when I order delivery at night, the manager knows me by my voice. Sure, they probably have caller ID, but I prefer to think of it as another way they’ve committed to me as much as I’ve committed to them.

The place is such a go-to stop for us now that one of my daughter’s first words was diner.

The diner is such a go-to stop for us now that one of my daughter’s first words was diner. (Another was the name of her favorite waitress.) Once she gets through the front door, the waitstaff knows her order: croissant and paper coffee cup with ice—and a lid!—so she can shake it like a maraca. By the time she settles into a high chair in whatever booth I’ve decided will give her the most colorful people to look at, her order is there. Occasionally when we don’t roll her in with her own breakfast—they’re kind like that, letting us bring in other food—we’ll order her eggs. They always make them the way she—er, we—likes them: scrambled in whole milk.

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Whether I’ll get to eat any of my challah French toast with a scrambled egg or drink my iced coffee is another matter. By the time I’m finished trying to get her to eat her breakfast—and not decorate the floor with it—she is halfway out of her high chair, antsy to go on a walkabout in the diner and greet her favorite waitress and waiter.

Over the visits my view of the diner certainly has changed. While it has gotten much less dingy, it’s the staff that has really won me over. They are so incredibly friendly and welcoming, as are the multigenerational customers who greet my daughter with such fondness. This place, which I had overlooked, has added a missing community element to our often overly busy and yet anonymous New York lives. (I would reveal the name here, but frankly its perfect New York diner-ness, that essential thing that makes New York diners great, can—and should!—be found at every greasy spoon in every neighborhood in every borough.)

Once the diner renovations finish, our family photo will hang beside a menagerie of Tony Danza, Sandra Bullock, and Mariah Carey.

We were a little late on sending our holiday cards out this year, in large part because we didn’t get around to taking the pictures for them until New Year’s Day. Figuring we needed an image of the kid looking smiley, we knew there was only one place to take it. When we printed them up a few days later and showed the owner, he requested two: one for the Christmas tree and one to display on the wall near the cash register alongside where the outdated glossy celebrity headshots usually hang. Once the diner renovations finish, our family photo will hang beside a menagerie of Tony Danza, Sandra Bullock, Mariah Carey, and, yes, Valerie Cherish (aka Lisa Kudrow). I can think of no higher New York honor. For now, though, it stands alone.

Photo by R Mac Wheeler/Unsplash

Proud as we were, everyone at this place is a VIP. From the “Oh, Hello” crowd, who indulge my daughter screaming “bread!” in the most outdoor voice imaginable, to the pulled-together parents who bring their extremely well-behaved kids here, to the hungover marketing executives comparing notes about the prior night’s activations, if you’re here, you feel like a Danza or a Bullock.

And if other VIPs sit next to us and their conversation is interesting enough, I feel compelled to talk to them, a bunch of regulars enjoying our usual. My daughter is completely on board, too, shaking the diner coffee cup maraca in their direction, feeling very much at home.

Caroline Waxler is a Philadelphia-born writer and editor living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Refinery29, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @test-email-Cwaxler and Instagram @test-email-Carolinewaxler.