full steam ahead for iconic eatery

| 27 Sep 2016 | 11:51

The flat top grill at Chelsea’s iconic Empire Diner will fire up once again.

Chef John DeLucie is partnering with the Cafeteria Group company to resurrect the 10th Avenue diner for a fourth time since it first closed in 2010. It is scheduled to reopen in November following a tumultuous five years.

The art moderne diner, on the corner of 22nd Street, was designed in 1946, when freestanding, train-car diners were so popular they were being churned out by a manufacturer. Now, it is one of the few left standing. “It’s a time capsule,” said Laura Moore, 31, a neighborhood resident who often made after-hours stops at the Empire.

Rising rents were blamed for ousting three sets of owners and have kept the diner in limbo since shortly after celebrity chef Amanda Freitag, in July 2015, left what would eventually be yet another failed attempt to keep the diner open.

Locals recall the diner’s growing pains as it tried to hold its ground as a Chelsea landmark.

Karen Fechter, 44, a 12-year Chelsea resident, used to drop in at happy hour with her coworkers or at night with friends. But, she said, the diner lost some of its essence as it became more upscale. “The last incarnation didn’t give that speakeasy vibe,” she said.

Another local, Jamie Sowlakis, 46, said he had also been disappointed by the more recent versions of the diner. “They stripped all the character out. You want a place like that to be crowded,” he said. He said he didn’t like that the latest, stripped-down design: “They were trying too hard.”

The Empire Diner has official landmark status, which means its facade cannot be altered. When the diner first closed in 2010, Michael Perlman, a Forest Hills native and local history junkie, went to the Landmarks Commission to push for the protection of the establishment’s interior. His request was never granted, but he hopes for the traditional interior to be restored. “It’s these unique details that make life extra special.”

He has a passion for saving diners and the culture’s other endangered species. “They are cornerstones of Americana,” he said. “The owners of the establishments know their patrons by their first names; patrons sit elbow-to-elbow at the counter or in comfy booths.” He said he loves places that bring people together. But he said diner owners need to be strategic to survive.

A few blocks away on 23rd Street, the Chelsea Square diner is one of the few survivors. Inside, patrons still drink their coffee at the counter and waiters bustle through the narrow space between the counter stools and small booths.

“We have people who change the channels, ask for special things made for them, have their spots where they sit,” its manager, Nick Mavromichalis, said.

He said that a long lease has insulated him from the rent hikes that are toppling other businesses.

María Díaz, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, said that rent woes are something she hears constantly. The Chamber of Commerce has not dealt specifically with the Empire Diner, but Díaz says that many small businesses in Chelsea are struggling to make rent.

Representatives for Chef DeLucie and the Cafeteria Group declined to comment on their specific plans for this iteration of the diner. However, Chris Sowlakis, who is overseeing the redesign of the restaurant, said, “The goal is to bring back the unique charm.”

He plans to put back counter seating and banquettes. “In New York City you don’t see a subway car as a diner that often. We’re trying to keep that.”