In an era when the rent is too-too-too-too-too damn high for just about any kind of small business, New Yorkers have become accustomed to losing their treasured local food establishments. And no loss has been more lamented than the rapidly vanishing New York diner. Almost every NYC publication has run their own death of the diner piece at some point in the last few years—in one recent Times story, diner-grammer Riley Arthur (@dinersofnyc) estimated we’re losing about 13 of these beloved eateries every year.
And arriving right on queue…the nouveau diner. We’ve seen a flurry of new places open lately that embrace that laid-back diner ambiance (comfortable seating! All-day breakfast! It’s named after my grandma!) but with decidedly new-school additions (avocado toast, obvi) and sigh, new-school prices (gotta pay that rent). At Rosalu Diner, which just opened in Clinton Hill, you can dive into a very-classic turkey club or opt for a cauliflower melt with an oat-milk flat white to wash it down. Across the river at Soho Diner there are roomy booths, a vintage jukebox and 24-hour service, but the ham steak and eggs comes with chimichurri sauce and the blueberry blintzes are filled with burrata. Up in the Catskills, the local-food-focused Phoenicia Diner has been described as “Portlandia goes to Woodstock.” In my last Brooklyn Based piece I mentioned that classic diners are the very best place to eat with toddlers, so as I drooled over Instagram-friendly photos from all of these places, I got to wondering: Do new-school diners work for families? Can I sample some of this trendy diner fare while my kid comes along?
I decided to start this experiment at MeMe’s Diner in Prospect Heights, which has received an outpouring of food-world buzz since opening in 2017, thanks to its LGBTQ-inclusive focus and creative comfort food twists. The tiny Washington Ave. space doesn’t take reservations, and when I first tried to go with friends last summer we gave up after hearing there’d be a one-hour-and-45-minute wait. This time I set out on a frigid January weekend with a smaller party (just me and my 3-year-old) and got there as early as we could (10:30, after spending roughly my entire goddamn life putting on mittens and whatnot). I hoped that pre-11am would be early enough to beat the hungover hipster hordes, but when we arrived there was still a one-hour wait for a table for two. That actually worked out fine with our schedule, and the very friendly host said they were happy to have kids, so we strolled over to the PS 9 playground until our table was ready.
In perhaps the best brunch-time innovation since nearby Tom’s started giving out free coffee and snacks to waiting customers on the sidewalk, as soon as you’re seated at MeMe’s they bring over a little bowl of mixed sugary cereals to tide you over. (Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch and Cinnamon Toast Crunch if I’m not mistaken—sorry if I am, I grew up in one of those dreadful sugar-cereal-free households). Needless to say, my kid (also a product of a sugar-cereal-free household) immediately thought this was the best restaurant on Planet Earth. He was equally excited when the widely-praised everything bagel babka arrived; less so when he took a bite and realized it wasn’t a cupcake with sprinkles. I wasn’t upset to get the rest of this soft and flaky pastry to myself while he went back to the dregs of the cereal bowl.
Every toddler brunch needs a rapid exit plan, so I passed over some of the very enticing over-the-top options (the outrageously sized chicken biscuit with fried egg and hot honey butter at the next table looked incredible, but challenging to eat). Instead I opted for the simpler breakfast sandwich—soft eggs encased in a potato bun and slathered in a queso-like cheese sauce and lots of sautéed kale. The little guy—who, to my never-ending shame, is um, far from an adventurous eater—ordered scrambled eggs and bacon. We both panicked when the eggs arrived topped with chopped chives (the chef couldn’t have known that “fresh garnish” translates to NO GREEN STUFF WHAT IS THAT WHYGODWHY THE WORLD IS OVER GET THOSE TINY SPECKS OF GREEN AS FAR AWAY FROM MY PLATE AS POSSIBLE). Fortunately he was in a good enough mood to happily chow down on the crispy, perfectly cooked strips of bacon while I isolated a few no-green-stuff bites of egg that I eventually managed to get into him.
Overall verdict: I should make clear that MeMe’s is not trying to be a family restaurant—and not every restaurant has to. Conversely, it’s me who is trying to fit my family responsibilities into my wanting-to-try-all-the-cool-new-restaurants lifestyle. MeMe’s focuses much more on the nouveau side of things than the diner, right down to the small details (there’s chili oil on every table, but no one ever offered to refill my tiny cup of coffee), and it’s certainly pricier than an old-school spot (a side of bacon plus a side of eggs comes to 12 bucks; the breakfast sandwich is 10; a plain coffee 5). But they were extremely friendly and perfectly happy to have a 3-year-old take up a seat at their enormously popular restaurant. I’d say if you have an older kid who would be excited to dive into some of the more creative dishes, MeMe’s is definitely doable—just arrive early, with an agenda for what to do during the wait. If you’re more interested in large cups of coffee and eggs with no green stuff, you’re probably wiser to stick to Tom’s.
I really dig modern diners. Rosalu in Clinton Hill / Fort Greene next to Pratt is quintessentially what I value: the cook is a chef is a cook. It’s not frou frou but it’s not hamfisted. There’s painstaking attention to detail but not desperately agonized preciousness. The ingredients are all organic and/or New York based. It’s what I envision as the classic mom and pop diner when the stuff was still ‘homemade’ not pre-packaged.