Brooklyn: My Part In Its DownfallMark Firth
Diner wasn’t the first diner we looked at once Andrew and I had decided to open our own restaurant. We were working at Odeon and Balthazar respectively and lived in a six-thousand-square-foot loft at 35 Broadway, rented from Isaac, an Israeli taxi medallion owner and car mechanic who owned half the neighborhood. He was a cross between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro but with dirty fingernails. The loft was basically a catalyst for everything that happened and everyone we met before we opened the restaurant. We rented it out for movies, music videos, and fashion shoots and threw parties with abandon. The space was perfect, with a pool table, axe throwing range, and enough room for roller blading and ping pong. The police would show up and the whole party would hide in the back studio until they left. We found Ken Reynolds sleeping on one of the many couches that we had in various areas around the loft (who knows how long he had been there), but he had an Irish glint in his eye and a can-do attitude that made us fast friends.
We had our eyes on a gleaming stainless-steel behemoth of a diner on Wythe Avenue across the street from Slicks motorcycle shop. The seventy-five-ishyear-old owner showed us he could still “hang with the kids” by dropping down and banging out twenty-five push-ups before he had Andrew sit on his back and do a few more. However, it turned out the money offered by the next prospective renters was worth more than our CrossFit games bonding. Disappointed, we turned to the more modest yellow faux-bricked facade of 85 Broadway. It had been sitting quiet for at least three or four years.
We set up a meeting with the son of the building’s owner, Ray Jr. His father Ray Sr. ran it as a diner in the ’70s and was infamous for his Colt 45 and large frame wedged behind the granite topped counter. Ray Jr. opened the battered old steel door and crept in slowly, as if he didn’t want to disturb the ghosts of a thousand mice. “Did you hear that?” he said as he whipped out a snub-nosed revolver and spun into the room. All we could see were Formica tables and a Coke machine that was now an SRO for cockroaches. Despite the layers of grease and dirt, we were smitten. We convinced Isaac to buy the building, give us a lease, and set about renovating the place. The first thing we did was take down the old siding behind the bar, discovering rows of original subway tile that we put aside for later. We then screwed up a piece of Sheetrock and scrawled “Build it and they will come.” And then, as two bartenders who could barely swing a hammer, we were stuck. Fortunately, our new friend Ken Reynolds—whose first words when he saw our handy work were, “Well, that is not going to fly”—took the Sheetrock down.
After that we were on a roll, Ken in charge, hiring our roommates, ex-girlfriends, neighbors, and welders to help tile, paint, and clean while we each held down three jobs. I risked deportation to hang drapes in Vancouver so we could afford an ice machine. We begged, borrowed, and not quite stole from our friends and family, and after six months we were almost there.
All we needed was a chef. We struck gold with Caroline—when she showed up with one eyebrow raised to help finish the kitchen and get us ready to open, I could tell that she was thinking, What the hell have I agreed to?
But she pushed us from day one, to buy better ingredients, to find more sustainable meat sources, and to make friends with the farmers—and soon they were delivering to us after the farmers’ markets.
The first meal she ever cooked for us was opening night down the street at our loft. It was a cassoulet with a watercress salad that we ferried up to the restaurant in large pots. We invited all the people who had helped us to dinner and then everyone we knew (or had met the night before) for the party. We spent New Year’s Eve running around, last-minute fixing, painting, stocking the bar, and filling bins with ice, wine, and beer (we didn’t have a fridge). We all took turns to shower and get dressed up for the party. I found myself alone at the first booth, and I had a silent cry. I had left home when I was eighteen and had been unrooted for years, but finally this felt like home and my new family.
There was no Yelp or Instagram back then, so Diner spread through word of mouth. There was no one to listen to you yell into the void of the internet because we forgot your order, or the seats were cramped, or we refused to turn down the music on Tuesday nights. If you liked it, you came back, and a lot of people came back. We under-promised and over-delivered; the exterior was plain and dimly lit; people often paused outside, unsure, almost daring themselves to step inside. Once they did, they were met with a wall of loud music, even louder people, and food that was simple and delicious. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Copyright © 2023 by Andrew Tarlow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.