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Monday, April 27, 2015

Empire Diner / Chelsea

We could have gone all the way to the Great Wall of China
Now all you're going to be is history
Help yourself, it's all you can eat at the Empire Diner tonight
You coulda had class, you coulda have been a contender
Charlie, you shoulda looked out for me
-"Great Wall of China," Billy Joel

Whether you love joining in endless refrains of "Piano Man," or you hate the thought of it (and there's no in between), some things just can't be denied. Billy Joel is a man who has put in his time as a musician, as a New Yorker, and as a New York Musician. Second only to Lady Liberty and possibly Beastie Boys, Billy Joel is the face of New York City to me. (Let it be known I grew up in a household where The Stranger is little short of sacred.)

I'd be lying if I didn't credit the piano man with plotting out my preconceived mental map--all the way from "52nd Street" to "Mister Cacciatore's down on Sullivan Street." And I am well aware that if I wanted to vy for the singer's affection, ladies and gentlemen, this Downtown Girl living in her Downtown World would be flat out of luck. Sure, it can be dangerous when lyrics become your sole framework for reality. But I choose not to think about that and instead, I try and find out the reality behind the lyrics! Amen?

So without further ado, I introduce to you the Empire Diner. 

The Empire Diner is one of the most beloved landmarks in Chelsea's eatery history. The once-swanky restaurant hosted an array of celebrity guests who made it popular during its hey-day in the 40's and 50's. Today Empire is one of only five free-standing diners remaining in the city, according to an excellent article from Scouting NY. This fact alone sings of the diner's age, days gone by when hospitality and fine dining went hand in hand. This came as a surprise to me, as I've always thought of diners to be characteristically kitschy a la American Graffiti.  

 When passing the diner at the corner of 22nd Street and 10th Avenue, the first thing I noticed was the stunning Art Moderne letters announcing the name "EMPIRE DINER", as well as a big, bold cue for me to "EAT." The rounded corners and the ribbon windows call to mind the late Art Deco period during which the building was constructed. All at once I felt hungry and deeply nostalgic for an era I never lived in. A day in the life, honestly.

In "Great Wall of China," Billy Joel is pointing fingers at his corrupt old manager who caused him years of trouble, inviting him to enjoy his last supper before becoming history--just like the diner he mentions. These lyrics carry a cutting-edge tone of "look what you've done" and a remorseful "what could have been." (Fun Fact: Billy Joel makes fitting reference to a line spoken by Marlon Brando in the classic film about New York mafiosos On the Waterfront: "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.") The singer clearly witnessed the downward turn the Empire Diner took in the latter half of the twentieth century; and no doubt he still sees the fragments of its glorious past.

Tucked away on the far west side of Manhattan, Empire Diner is a rarity in conversation and nothing like the trendy hot spot it used to be. But there is a reason this gem of the past has been preserved, along with the restoration of the nearby High Line. This restaurant was as personal to its customers as it was popular to A-list regulars. While the stars have all but faded, the Empire Diner still stands, bolstered by the memories of neighbors and the musings of lyricists.


  1. Love this article!
    I treasure the memories of my visits to the Empire Diner in the 1980's. It was a beautiful place inside and out, and a great place to go anytime day or night. I felt like I had gone back in time when I stepped through the door.
    I did not know about Billy Joel's song, though. Very cool.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for reading, we should go there together when you're in town :)