This spring, the Empire Diner reopened under the direction of Chef/Proprietor John DeLucie and the Cafeteria Group. The freestanding building in West Chelsea, with its iconic silver, Art Deco façade, has remained a New York staple since first opening in 1976. The establishment in its original state closed in 2010 before going through various new owners and rebirths, and most recently remaining vacant since 2015.
“Partnering with John for this project was a natural fit – with his expertise in classic, elevated comfort food and eye for perfection,” says Stacy Pisone, partner in the Cafeteria Group. “We’ve been an integral part of Chelsea for two decades since the opening of Cafeteria in 1998, and could not be more excited to expand our portfolio in this dynamic neighborhood.”
DeLucie himself has a storied New York culinary history. As Chef/Partner (along with the likes of Graydon Carter, Sean MacPherson and Emil Varda) in such high-profile restaurants as The Waverly Inn, The Lion, Crown, Bill’s Food & Drink and Bedford & Co, he has played host to the city’s top power players and such a-list celebrities as Beyonce, Sarah Jessica Parker, Taylor Swift and Cameron Diaz.
On his decision to take on the Empire, he elaborates, “I’ve known Stacy for years, she called me and told me she had secured the lease on the property and asked me if I’d want to do it with her. I didn’t hesitate because I knew she would be great to partner with, and that I would absolutely want to work on this project. I had actually been there over the years when I was a younger.”
The updated design of the space maintains the traditional New York décor with a slightly more contemporary touch. Working with interior design and architecture firm Nemaworkshop, they managed to restore and accentuate the authentic stainless steel panels. They’ve also included wood paneling in the ceiling to contribute to a more refined appeal while complementing the unique structure.
“I think the spirit of the place is very much still alive,” says DeLucie, “There is a lot of glass and stainless steel with an art moderne exterior. There is also a clock in the main room that’s been there since the 40s. But what is different is the infrastructure such as the lighting, air conditioning and lots of stuff you wouldn’t notice.”
Chef de Cuisine Justin Neubeck brings his passion for quality seasonal ingredients and his classically refined influences to the table (pun intended). The menu features “Small Plates” as an upscale take on traditional diner favorites. Entrees like the Braised Beef Short Rib with horseradish gremolata and the Sourdough Pretzel Fried Chicken with chili mustard sauce give it an irresistibly hearty appeal. Happily, though, the Empire Double Patty Burger with American cheese served with herbed french fries has made a return.
And for dessert? Pastry Chef George McKirdy puts his personal touch on American diner favorites, with a three-layer coconut cake with butter cream and pineapple ribbons and the strawberry chiffon cake served with vanilla cream strawberry compote and a toasted almond crumb. Sure to inspire a sweet tooth is the Empire S’mores Torte, with toasted marshmallow, semi-sweet chocolate mousse, house made graham crackers, and vanilla ice cream.
The Empire is also sure to become a favorite nightlife destination for a low-key cocktail. Cafeteria Group’s Head Mixologist Jenny Castillo uses clean and simple ingredients to put a current twist on classic drinks. One tasty libation is the Salty Dog, made with pressed fennel and grape juice.
Although only time will tell, it seems to fit the particular niche for Chelsea locals who fear change. And with the leadership of a Chelsea favorite of two decades in the Cafeteria Group, the iconic establishment seems to be in trusted hands for a proper revival.
“A big challenge,” DeLucie admits, “is that everyone has his or her memory of Empire because it’s been such an iconic space in NYC for so long. It means something very different to every person, so it’s difficult to manage everyone’s expectations as far as the food and experience goes.”
And a favorite story from the old Empire? “One evening that stands out was when I was at the diner with David Johansen of the New York Dolls. He was dining at one of the tables, acting wild and eating a hamburger.”
Hopefully he’ll be back.
Empire Diner is now open at 210 10th Avenue in New York City. For reservations or more information, visit the website or call (212) 335-2277.