The history of New York is one of constant reinvention. Without landmark status, market forces and time generally conspire to drastically alter even the most beloved neighborhood institutions. Chelsea’s Empire Diner is a rare exception, and now, thanks to Nemaworkshop, it has an interior befitting its archetypal art moderne facade.
First opened in 1946 courtesy of the Fodero Dining Car Company, the diner retained the same owner for 30 years. It continued operating as a greasy spoon, albeit one featured in Woody Allen’s Manhattan and on the cover of Tom Waits’s Asylum Years, until a recent series of high-profile interventions—intended to capitalize on the neighborhood’s transformation into the city’s premiere art gallery destination post-SoHo, and more recently, its current incarnation as the tourist-heavy home of the Highline—over the past several years, including under Food Network personality and chef Amanda Freitag. None gained any traction.
That is until the Cafeteria Group, operator of the now-classic 24-7 restaurant Cafeteria, also located in Chelsea, brought in Nemaworkshop’s Anurag Nema to revitalize the interior for a reboot by chef John DeLucie, a veteran of West Village standbys like the Waverly Inn and Lion.
Nema’s high-profile projects have included a 2011 renovation of Cafeteria and the design of Delicatessen, another downtown New York restaurant in the same vein. Here, he left the exterior untouched, while preserving and incorporating a mid-century diner vernacular updated with warmer, more upscale finishes. “We added texture to the slick aerodynamic shapes of the old diner,” Nema explains.
He kept the sign board that ran the length of the old space, while its vinyl-letter signs were removed in favor of sleek mirror. Linear wood strips coated to a high-gloss emphasize the existing ceilings curved shapes. The counter and floor is now marble, and reflect off of the soft, matte-finished chrome accents of repurposed vintage opal-glass light fixtures. Formerly vinyl, stools and banquettes are upholstered in a fine cognac leather.
“Anurag was the perfect choice to refresh and reinvigorate the space,” Cafeteria Group partner Stacy Pisone says. “There certainly were some original elements we wanted to preserve and restore but anything new had to have a classic feel, like the bar top and octagon floor tiles. Everything now feels brighter and lighter, but there is still an authenticity that comes through.”
“First and foremost, Empire Diner is a fun place to dine,” DeLucie adds. “The kitchen is wide open, creating a small theatrical effect as you walk through the space—you actually see your food getting prepared. And the choices we made in the plates, silver, and glassware complement the relaxed industrial vibe too.”
In fact, all of the choices the team has made contribute to a striking backdrop for DeLucie’s stellar nouvelle American menu, which includes updated diner favorites such as a sourdough pretzel fried chicken with mustard hot sauce and the Empire Sundae: a classic concoction upgraded with a salted peanut-caramel brownie bar.