During a phone call, owner Perry Drosos confirmed my own personal observations regarding the premium for seats at the newly opened Dinerbar on Clifton, the successor to the long-running restaurant of the (almost) same name. Two separate mid-week visits revealed dining rooms filled to the brim with fervent guests, patios that were operating at full capacity, and yet more hopeful diners shuffling their way up to the host stand. I can only imagine the scene on a sunny Saturday morning.
"We kind of wanted to start slowly, but it wasn't at all like that," said Drosos, adding that the latest reports tally a staggering 500-diner-per-day average.
Who knew that the smartest play in the restaurant world is to shut down, take a 2-year hiatus, and then reopen at a completely different address?
While the Diner's last few years of existence (and nonexistence) reads like the plot line from a maudlin soap opera, the story appears to be coasting toward a pleasant denouement. The big winner in all of this, of course, is Drosos, who never again has to endure the loathsome question: "So, when are you opening?"
Loyal fans of the original diner, which operated for 17 years just 160 meters away, will quickly observe how much has changed. But they will also appreciate how much has stayed the same. A double-sided menu is long — too long, perhaps — because it blends old favorites like garden vegetable chowder, mac and cheese and patty melts with new arrivals like crab cakes, risotto balls and a poke bowl. There's still a counter at which to belly up, but this one curves its way through the heart of the space. And if you couldn't discern from the new moniker, all of the above now comes with a sidecar of beer, wine and cocktails.
In keeping with the "Modern American Diner" tagline, Drosos and his team transformed a featureless commercial space into a sleek, stylish and subtly retro interior that manages to conjure the spirit of a neighborhood gathering place. Graphic Fornasetti wallpaper provides an Insta-worthy backdrop. Chrome-trimmed Formica tables fit the part, but they're paired with cushy leatherette chairs and booths. Double the square footage of the old spot means diners now get a main-level restroom. We also get a patio, which is elevated above the street and sidewalk.
Of diners we require few things, among them broad menus, breakfast all day and snappy service. Dinerbar nails two out of three and is well on its way to a near-perfect score. New tablet-style order systems seem to gum up the works, especially when they double as the wine list, requiring the server to hand it over. One night on the patio, we watched with empathy and agony as a threesome cooled their jets (and food) while waiting for one of the entrees to arrive.
Service at the bar, on the other hand, was swift and efficient. Breakfast for dinner takes on new meaning when it includes a bracing margarita ($9) as a side dish. Well-made corned beef hash ($9.95) is delicious any time of day, especially when it features fat and salty chunks of meat, tender potatoes and sweet sauteed onions beneath a roof of over-easy eggs. The dish is joined by a handful of other egg dishes that can be ordered clear up till close. Items such as French toast, pancakes and eggs Benedict, on the other hand, are reserved for mornings and weekend brunch.
The quintessential Dinerbar meal might kick off with a cup of garden vegetable chowder ($3.95), include a plate of bacon and cheddar topped fries ($7.95) with ranch dipping sauce for snacking, before landing at a classic like the tuna melt ($9.95), paired with crackly onion rings, or the hot roast turkey ($10.95) with mashed potatoes. The thin-sliced meat is surprisingly flavorful, the potatoes unusually silky-smooth, and the steamed green beans a dead ringer for those from a can.
Dinerbar excels at the basics, like BLTs, club sandwiches, wraps, burgers and patty melts. The entree section alone approaches two dozen dishes, most of which I can't personally vouch for. But if you can't decide between a New York strip steak, chicken Parm or shepherd's pie for dinner, this is the restaurant to visit. That shepherd's pie ($11.95) takes some liberties with the time-honored recipe, but the result is every bit as savory, satisfying and filling.
One of the brightest storylines at Dinerbar is the sweets program, overseen by pastry chef Annabella Andricks. A glass-fronted display case literally taunts guests with mile-high salted caramel cheesecakes, giant swirled Ho-Hos and rainbow-colored "funfetti" cakes fit for a unicorn.
Owner Drosos, who's been working this beat since the Clifton Lunch days, has seen it all. But that doesn't mean he isn't liking what he sees.
"I'm very grateful for the business," he tells me. "People loved my old place and are very connected to it and the food. It's all very touching and humbling to know that people appreciate what you do."