New York may be the culinary capital of the world, but when it comes to great diners, it’s not even on the map. While New Jersey normally lives in Gotham’s shadow, the Garden State has us beat by a meringue-whipped mile when it comes to hash houses.
Or at least it did. At the revamped Empire Diner, ridiculously fluffy buttermilk pancakes ($11) give tattered Jersey joints a run for their money. The crisp-edged clouds reduce galleryhopping sophisticates to shameless jockeying for the last bite at the crowded counter. Those all-day-breakfast beauties come courtesy of Food Network toque—and Jersey native—Amanda Freitag, who has taken over the beloved old Empire, polishing one of New York’s most iconic greasy spoons into a sceney, fan-baiting dining room.
Lined with padded booths, tiled floors and glossy chrome, the shimmering steel warhorse looks the part, but this ain’t a mom-and-pop truck stop. Instead of chain-smoking waitresses who call you “sweetie” or “hon,” there are suave, fresh-faced servers offering pickled jalapeño martinis, and skate wings ($11): crisp, tender fillets that soak up butter-rich buffalo sauce even better than a bird.
Freitag’s playful riffs on diner classics can be revelatory, like firm slips of everything-bagel-spiced gravlax ($12), paired not with pedestrian cream cheese but with luxe burrata and briny roe. At times, though, her gussied-up renditions leave you longing for solid originals. A thin, salty oyster pan roast ($19) is too stingy with silky poached oysters and too generous with chewy chunks of pork belly. Loaded potatoes ($13) are lavished with nuggets of bacon and foie gras, but the fried smashed fingerlings offer more mush than crunch.
Empire atones for its occasional lapses in innovation with improved-upon classics: a juice-dripping burger ($16) robed in melty orange cheddar and sugar-dusted doughnut holes ($7) still hot from the fryer. Empire Diner doesn’t nail it every time, but its comforts satisfy, just like the hit-and-miss menus of the country’s most beloved chrome canteens.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Lox and burrata, buffalo skate wings, orzo mac and cheese, chili cheese fries, pancakes, burger, doughnut holes
Behind the bar: This is perhaps the only bar in New York that turns out an old-fashioned alongside salted caramel milk shakes.
Vibe: A classic Art Deco diner crowded with art geeks instead of Little League teams
Cocktail chatter: The photos in the back dining room and bathroom depict the families of current and former Empire Diner owners.
Soundcheck: This jammed railroad dining room couldn’t be any louder if it were rumbling down the High Line.