Since I moved to New York, this is Empire Diner's third or fourth incarnation. It's also the cheffiest, and by my standards, the best. Amanda Freitag took over over a year ago, and it's just as bustling as ever, the interior retaining it's foundation and classic, diner-y feel, with an additional dining annex constructed adjacent, which up a sort of hidden staircase past the bar we ascended to arrive upon our table.
I like it in there. There's a lot of chrome, dark wood, it has a sort of swanky truck-stop feel, with a little deco, cinematic mystique thrown in as any New York eponym should. Upstairs even feels a little V.I.P, although that may have been because Sandra Bernhard was dining at the table next to ours. As for the food, it may not be what one expects from a diner, and the prices reflect that. But what it loses in economy it makes up for in volume, and for the most part, quality. (Even Sandra got half of her entree that remained to go in a doggy bag). Her's was the evening's special: a filet of sole with grilled summer squashes piled underneath. For our part, however, we started off strong with some veggies: beets from the sides menu (I think beets are a little sweet and powerfully flavored for a side, and function much more deftly as an appetizer). These were tender and tangy, mounded above a thick swirl of yogurt with a smattering of fresh herbs. Alas, there's one other thing about Empire Diner that's unlike other diners: the menus aren't fossilized under a laminated
coating. They slide in and out of plastic sleeves, and their mutability is hyper-seasonal and can't guarantee any particular menu stalwart as the seasons ebb. Consequently, those beets are long gone. However, a lip-smacking brussels sprouts rendition from the Small Plates menu endures, and that is a prudent move. The sprouts are halved and roasty, spiked with a zesty chili jam that plays well off their earthiness.
Gauging from Sandra's super-size sole entree, we selected those that seemed a little more constrained in portion size, because a movie was on the docket, post-prandially, and toting leftovers to Clearview wasn't an option. Thus, a falafel burger on brioche seemed circumspect, and although it was substantially doused in a creamy cucumber raita, it still came across as a little dry (there's a reason falafel's traditionally paired with pita). I mean, it was basically four inches of vertical starch. Consequently, it seems to have been axed from the menu, although there are three meat-based burgers, a brisket sandwich and a tuna melt to pick up the slack. We also tried the Baja Fish Tacos, two to an order, but doubled-up each on the corn tortillas, which swiftly fell apart as the moist steam from the flaky chunks of grilled hake decimated their structure. Two tortillas were excessive in proportion to the filling, but they
deconstructed so quickly that the redundant tortilla was left mostly as shrapnel on the plate. A kicky green tomatillo salsa livened up the flavorful fish, pickly carrots and cabbage and jalapenos added crunch and heat, and a creamy swipe of lime crema smoothed everything over. While I applaud the effort to avoid frying the shells, a flour tortilla might hold up better, or else maybe this is why the hard shell taco is the default. I was a little disappointed not to have happened here on a Friday night, where Hot Chicken is the Green Plate Special (Freitag means Friday, so it's suitable she'd have a hot, spicy chick on the dat of her namesake), but maybe another visit is in order. Also, to tackle some of the Dessert menu, upon which such classics as Peach Melba, a banana split, rice pudding and a black and white cheesecake are featured. But I'm sure for these, two, Freitag has some unconventionally tasty tricks up her sleeve.
210 10th Avenue @22nd street