A vintage dining car. In the middle of New York City. Revamped. Reworked. Ridiculously awesome. The “hippest diner on Earth.”
When the iconic Empire Diner shut its doors on May 15, 2010, it seemingly marked the end of a staple feeding New Yorkers since 1946. After much real estate turmoil, Chef Amanda Freitag (most notably known for her role as a judge of Food Network’s Chopped), took over the space. With a new menu and refurbished decor, the Empire Diner reopened in January 2014, feeding hungry New Yorkers like it always has.
Freitag and her team opted to maintain the integrity of the iconic Diner, keeping every detail in place, including the iconic Empire State Building replica on top of the building.
The inside looks like your average, hometown diner. But if the food and service at my local Versailles Diner in Fairfield, NJ served food half as good as Empire, I wouldn’t have stopped going the second I graduated high school.
Empire doesn’t accept reservations, so we arrived on relatively early on a Wednesday evening, finding only a 30 minute wait. They will take down your phone number and text when your table is ready (I love that places have started doing this), but they also have an upstairs lounge so you can relax with a cocktail while you wait.
The drinks here are spectacular, with talented bartenders infusing liquors and creating their own condiments. I opted to order the Pier 60, a rum based drink, while Mike ordered their take on an Old Fashioned (once again, I can’t believe how this drink is all the rage).
A light and refreshing cocktail essentially deconstructs a blended fruity drink found on any beach. As the weather is getting warmer, I am all about the fruity, without being too sweet cocktails to get excited for a fabulous summer. We waited in the lounge, made up of dark wooden tables and dimly lit lights, until the hostess escorted us to our table. For a diner, they already kill it in the service department.
Empire Diner takes classic dishes and completely reinvents them in ways I’ve never seen before. Orzo Mac and Cheese. Yes, Please. Bone Marrow Matzoh Ball Soup. Buffalo Skate Wings. Sold. We wanted to try everything! Thankfully, the high quality of wait staff continued at the table, with the extremely friendly knowledgeable waitress explaining the menu and helping us to trim down our order. They also helped to pace out the dishes, not to overwhelm us with everything on the table all at once, like in traditional diner settings.
We began with perhaps the most genius dish of the evening and one I fully intend to recreate at home, Lox and Burrata.
Everything I adore about an everything bagel with lox and cream cheese is inhabited in this dish. Burrata already holds a special place in my heart, with the mozzarella outside stuffed with a creamy ricotta-like cheese. It’s silky and slightly sweet balancing the beautiful pieces of slightly smoky lox. The everything bagel seasoning on top is genius, providing the crunch and flavoring without the actual bagel. And you hardly miss the bagel with this version. I say serve this at every Passover Seder and people will quickly forget that cannot eat bagels. Dill and lox are a match made in heaven, adding a level of freshness mixed with the lemon zest. Pretty much, this dish makes lox a completely acceptable dish any time of day (not that it wasn’t already in my mind).
Next, we turned to the Skate Buffalo Wings, Empire Diner’s fancier take on traditional (boneless) chicken wings.
Breaded and lightly fried skate wings are doused in a spicy buffalo sauce giving the taste and texture of traditional buffalo chicken wings. It’s a lighter version with the flaky fish breaking apart with the gentle stroke of your fork. The wings sit on top of a bed of celery and carrot ribbons with are doused in a light blue cheese dressing. All of the condiments found with wings make their way onto the plate in a way that leaves both your fingers and face free of the typical mess. All the traditional flavors; no wet naps necessary.
Since Karp and I are on the quest for the best damn burger in the city, we needed to order the Empire (Cheese) Burger.
Don’t even worry about adding any condiments to this ridiculously juicy, flavorful burger. The special sauce seeps into the toasted, buttery brioche bun with the homemade pickles adding acidity and a bit of crunch. Melted sharp cheddar cheese oozes down the side of the burger, holding everything in place as you take each increasingly messy bite. It’s a pretty damn good burger.
Where the burger rises to a level a greatness, the fries fall extremely short. There’s nothing to the rustic cut potatoes, lacking any kind of real crispiness or texture for that matter. They’re forgettable, which can help to rationalize ordering another dish since they will definitely remain behind once you’ve devoured the burger.
Next, we moved on to the French Onion Soup with bagel bread pudding croutons.
This was my least favorite dish of the meal, which is extremely disappointing since I have a real love for French Onion Soup (there are Costco frozen versions in my freezer at all time). I found the bagel bread pudding really didn’t work since a bagel by nature lacks the absorbency of normal bread. The soup also lacked the bubbly, golden Gruyere covering the top of the entire bowl, which keeps the dish warm and provides that dreamy aromatic moment when you break into the cheese to reveal the beef broth underneath. The broth itself lacks the full bodied flavor, not making up for the missing cheese and the pieces of bagel. Skip this.
Mac and Cheese has long been an all-time favorite, already receiving serious make-overs across the city at places like S’Mac and Cafeteria, but never before have I seen the type of pasta and style of cooking completely replaced. Introducing Creamy Orzo “Mac and Cheese.”
Prepared in a style similar to risotto then baked to give the bread crumbs on top their distinct crunch, this variation of mac and cheese is addictive. It’s absolutely creamy, super rich and just when you think you can’t take another bite, you discover a piece of broccoli which provides a “freshness” making you forget that it’s completely slathered in truffle butter and layers and layers of cheesy goodness. The flavors are complex, and fills a craving in a completely different way than traditional ‘mac.
Smoky pieces of crispy broccoli are smothered with melted cheese, giving a salty sweetness to each bite. The golden brown slivers of roasted garlic adds a crunch and yet another layer of sweetness. It’s a good side dish, but nothing absolutely out of the ordinary.
We pretty much went to town on this meal, sampling everything we possibly could without doing such extreme damage to our waistlines. It’s always the most fun to go with a friend who wants to share everything and try absolutely everything without limits. All of the dishes are under $15 (with the exception of two main plates for $20). It’s extremely reasonably priced, especially considering the quality of food and service.
It’s a place you could come back and have a radically different meal and still not try everything. There was some stand out stars, and some dishes where the classic proves why it’s a classic and shouldn’t be changed. Amanda Freitag really brought new life to an New York institution, and I am convinced her Empire Diner will be attracting big crowds for a very long time.
Empire Diner – 210 10th Avenue – New York, NY
Location: Chelsea, NY
Type: New American
Perfect For: Drinks, Casual Meal, Impressing Foodies
Reservations: Not Available
Favorite Dishes: Lox & Burrata, Buffalo Skate Wings, Empire Burger, Creamy Orzo “Mac & Cheese”