How the Empire Diner was born
My immigrant grandfather could never have envisioned that catastrophe and personal failure would result in one of the most iconic restaurants in New York City
In Manhattan, the Empire Diner space is getting ready to reopen in Chelsea under celebrity chef Amanda Freitag, and even though the new restaurant doesn’t have a name yet, it’s nice to see the little black-and-chrome boxcar resuscitated. For 30 years, countless stories were written about one of the most successful restaurants in Manhattan history — how it was a haven for celebrities from Steven Spielberg to Kate Winslet, and for artists, drag queens, tourists and anyone hungry for a chili sundae at 4 a.m. after a night of clubbing. How it was instrumental in helping transform the neighborhood. But no one ever knew about the original owner — my late grandfather Nathan Heller — and how the Empire was born, which was out of sorrow and failure.
Nathan Heller’s dream was to be a physician. He had good hands, gentle and confident, the kind that you wouldn’t mind on your throat, checking for swollen glands. He was medium height and went bald as a young man, losing the silky blonde hair that my mom wishes she had inherited. He had a gruff temperament and a bad temper, a super-size heart and a generous spirit. If that sounds confusing, it was to all of us, too.
Nathan had come to New York from Austria-Hungary at 14 with his family in the early 1900s, fleeing pogroms. He learned English quickly, and worked and worked. He was hungry, for enough to eat and for a life beyond the Lower East Side. He saved up all his money to go to Columbia and was accepted. But after attending school for about a year, the influenza epidemic of 1918 arrived. He didn’t become ill but a number of family members did. He spent the next several months taking care of them. He never went back to school. He had used up all his savings for health care, and my mother also believes that he felt too discouraged after missing so many classes and was worn out by all the illness around him.
Nathan married my grandmother, Dora, about a year and a half later, and they opened a small deli. Searching for a better way to support his family, he opened The Empire Diner in 1934. At first, it wasn’t the boxcar, just a small, uninspiring wooden structure. Later, he had the boxcar made in New Jersey, and it was brought over to New York on a flatbed truck.
My aunt remembers my grandfather waking her up in the middle of night so she could see the Empire Diner arrive. Police wouldn’t permit the diner to be driven across the George Washington Bridge during the day because it took up too many lanes.
On my grandfather’s first day working at the diner, a couple of big shipworkers came in for a bite. They brusquely asked my grandfather his name. He didn’t want to say Nathan because he didn’t think it sounded manly enough. “Louie,” he replied. From then on, that’s what everyone called him. Louie constantly lent money to the shipworkers and anyone else who came in if they didn’t have enough until payday. In return, they watched over him and the business. At the end of every day, my grandmother would walk the day’s take over to the bank. Never once was she mugged in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. The word on the street was that she was Louie’s wife, hands off.
The Empire Diner prospered. One of my grandfather’s specialities was the potato knish. The man had a way with dough. Eating it, you felt like the knish cared about you.
My grandfather opened a second place, The Yankee Diner in Sheepshead Bay, that also did well. My grandparents were able to move up to the middle class. They bought a house, sent kids to college, saved for what would be a comfortable retirement. They had a country house upstate where my mother and her sister would pick huckleberries for pies at the diners. Growing up, my mother remembers my grandfather saying he planned to go back to school when he turned 40 and finally become a doctor. But he never did.
A handful of years after World War II, my grandfather turned over Chelsea’s Empire Diner to one of his sister’s sons, whose heirs I have never known and who to the best of my knowledge remain the landlords. (My grandfather opened a second Empire Diner at 11th Avenue and 19th Street, but neither that place nor the Yankee Diner remain open today.)
I remember when I first saw The Empire Diner. I was 15 years old in Lexington, Kentucky, 800 miles away from a corned beef sandwich. The diner appeared out of nowhere as I watched Woody Allen’s movie “Manhattan.” It was 1979. In the dark of the theater, the diner looked absolutely huge to me, almost Imax-ish.
When I’d visit New York over the years, I’d visit the Empire and sit at the counter. Instead of thinking about Harry Connick Jr. playing piano in the corner as he did when he first came to New York, I imagined my mother eating fried chicken and apple pie on a Sunday night, maybe not too far from where I was sitting. I imagined my grandfather at the grill cooking up eggs because they were short-handed that day.
With Amanda Freitag’s reopening, it is nice to know that the boxcar will remain a monument to the city of dreams, even if it came from someone who could not fulfill his own. But I guess sometimes, you never know how you’ll end up serving people.
Journalist Leslie Guttman is the author of Equine ER: Stories From a Year in the Life of an Equine Veterinary Hospital (Eclipse Press). Her work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and in numerous publications, including Salon, Paste, Men’s Journal and the Washington Post.