Short Order Nostalgia

Editor’s note: My earliest and fondest memory of diner cuisine was the gleaming Manorville Diner where Exit 70 off the LIE spills with a looping right turn onto Highway 27. I have dreamy visions of this place, partly because it was generally my family’s first pit stop on early morning trips from New York City to the East End. (Alternate stops, when we couldn’t make it to the diner, were the Howard Johnson at Exit 64, and, when a changing tide or other urgency meant we couldn’t sit down to a full meal, the nearby Grace’s hot dog stand, before it graduated from a trailer to a more formal structure, and before the more formal structure became a Capital One Bank and Starbucks.)

Having stumbled into the car in Manhattan at 6 a.m. or earlier, and sleeping for most of the trip, my sister and I would magically wake up in the diner parking lot, ravenous, but excited to revel in the restaurant’s various distractions. Like any good diner, this one tread the balance between predictable and quirky. Notably, every table was equipped with its own mini-jukebox, a prescient interior design element before iPod’s offered similar customized in-meal sound experiences. Somehow, even though one table might select “Bette Davis Eyes” and another “New York, New York,” the cacophony was manageable, even pleasant. The food was standard diner fare—hot, greasy and filling. On the way out, we collected toothpicks and mints, and purchased the occasional loaf of Irish soda bread, available most of the year, but definitely in the spring around St. Pattie’s day.

About 10 years ago, the diner gave way to Villa Michelangelo, an Italian restaurant and pizzeria that is even more gaudy than its predecessor. Villa Michelangelo doesn’t open until 11, so the travel-weary seeking eggs, bacon and pancakes, with a side of music, will have to look elsewhere.

—BH

Short Order 1 Brian HalweilFor those who seek out life’s small encounters, there’s no better place to observe their ebb and flow than at the diners and luncheonettes that dot the East End’s hamlets and highways.

Take the Coronet, in Greenport, a 1949 eatery with its distinctive green and white awning that literally sits on the town’s crossroads— straddling the corners of Main and Front Streets. The vintage steel counter—pockmarked with shallow craters rendered by scores of East End elbows—has over the years played host to high school students on hot dates and local politicos plotting the town’s future.

Nowadays, the smell of bacon and eggs still hangs in the air. There is the clink of silverware as a waitress sets a place for some tourists crowding into one of the original wooden booths. There are scrambled eggs and pancakes, and for those who yearn for a dollop of nostalgia with their omelet or burger, there’s plenty of that, too.

It’s also the kind of place that when a stranger walks in and needs a pair of reading glasses, he gets them.

That’s the case one gray August morning. A white-haired boater wandered into the place searching for a pay phone to call a repair service for his ailing craft. Spotting a woman wearing glasses at a nearby booth, he asks, “Can I borrow those? I can’t read the phone book.”

“Here take mine,” she replies, waving the spectacles in his direction.

“That’s so much better,” sighs the boater, first doffing the proffered glasses, then dialing for help.

At the Coronet, as well as at like-minded luncheonettes, snack bars and diners—including the Modern Snack Bar in Aquebogue, the Cutchogue Diner in Cutchogue, and the Star Confectionery in Riverhead—a large helping of hometown friendliness accompanies each slice of peach pie or stack of blueberry pancakes. Nostalgia for simpler times fuels the continuing interest in these places. And the humble eateries attract tourists and locals alike. Iconic Art Deco stainless steel trim, vintage counters, and tin ceilings create a look that recalls sock hops and friendly neighbors. And comfort food staples, like milk shakes, burgers, fries and a slice of homemade pie, lure 21st-century fans as well.

“When we come out here, we don’t want to go” to chain establishments, says Huntington, LI, resident Jeanne Kondracke, who rents a summer home in Peconic, and whose search for an authentic East End experience was partly cured by a breakfast-time visit to the timeless 1941 Cutchogue Diner.

For a dependable vintage dining experience, that includes the decor as well as the food, these establishments deliver.

Star Confectionery, Riverhead. In downtown Riverhead, Main Street is marred by a string of abandoned storefronts. Sitting among them is Star Confectionery, a nearly 100-year-old luncheonette whose colorful early-20th-century stained glass windows remind passersby that the county seat was once a flourishing commercial district. Seventy-five-year-old owner, Anthony Meras, whose father bought the spot in 1920, says the vintage eatery is bustling on weekends, but during the week only a handful of locals and tourists amble into the place. Nevertheless, with its original marble counter, its blue, green and white patterned marble floor, its tin ceiling and wooden booths, Star Confectionery is prized for its authentic old-time ambience.

Meras, a stoop-shouldered cook and confectioner (his holiday-time, handcrafted chocolate turkeys, Santas and Easter bunnies are legendary), stuffs his lanky frame into one of the original wooden booths that line the place and thumbs a faded advertisement touting the wares offered by the shop shortly after it opened in 1911. The air smells faintly sweet, perhaps from the homemade ice cream that Meras concocts in the tiny kitchen at the back of the luncheonette. In the early days, candy was a prime attraction and was sold from a mahogany case at the front of the luncheonette. The case, like the Tiffany lamps, fell victim to a “modernizing” trend in 1949, says Meras, as did the original porcelain stools.

But there’s plenty still to admire. There’s the stained glass and there are the scrambled eggs, moist and flavorful, along with bacon that was cooked just to the right point of crispness. Meras also mixes up his own chicken, tuna and shrimp salads.

Short Order 2 Brian HalweilLocals like Richard and Linda Bonforte of Greenport “make a point of coming” to the Star Confectionery. And lawyers and jurors from the nearby court buildings stop by as well.

But the profusion of big-box stores along Route 58 has siphoned off many would-be customers, Meras says. Before the advent of the retail strip, the classic luncheonette was a popular hangout. “It was an ice cream parlor where kids would come after school.” At one point, a Coke was five cents,” recalls Miras. A roast beef sandwich was 15 cents; a sundae, a quarter; and a milk shake, 15 cents.

Remembers Meras’s son, Anthony, age 40, who with his father runs the place these days, “When I was a kid, the whole counter was filled with businessmen and teachers. They’d solve the whole day’s problems and off to work they’d go.”

But “the kids don’t come here any more,” sighs his father. Changing tastes and school busing—kids don’t walk by the place after school any more—have taken their toll.

Modern Snack Bar, Aquebogue. At the Modern Snack Bar, everyone’s a kissing cousin, it seems. For one thing, 84-year-old matriarch, Wanda Wittmeier, rules the place from her roost on a stool at the end of the counter that faces the busy kitchen where waitresses hunker over apple, banana cream and other pie favorites, dishing out healthy-sized wedges to the old-timers and tourists who frequent the place. During a recent visit, the round-faced Wanda, like a lioness tending to her cubs, casts a watchful eye over the squad of veteran waitresses as customers—some from the distant past—stop by to greet her. “I can’t believe how this place has stayed the same,” exclaims one gray-haired lady who last dined at the spot in the 1950s.

Clinging to its past is as much a part of the Modern tradition as are its famous Thanksgiving turnips and its dome-topped homemade lemon meringue pies, as puffy as crinolines, stacked on a display case next to the kitchen. The lobster salad, filled with chunks of sweet meat, is a perpetual crowd-pleaser as well.

“I’m a fixture here,” says Wanda, recalling how she came to help her sister in 1956 and never left. Now her two sons, John and Otto, run the place, and the spot still dishes out the German- inspired cuisine, like homemade sauerbraten that has kept customers coming back for years. “We’re famous for our turnips,” says the heavy-set Otto, who bears a remarkable resemblance to his mother. “At Thanksgiving we sell 6,000 pounds.”

In the beginning, the full-service restaurant was indeed a snack bar with stools ranged around a counter that framed the outside of what was then a much smaller building.

These days, the snack bar had morphed into a 125-seat eatery. Today, the heart of the place is still the counter, now inside, facing the kitchen, where old timers are waited on by doting white- uniformed waitresses, more family than servers.

Taking a bite out of a BLT sandwich, Bob Fox, who for 32 years has been stopping by the eatery, explains its attraction as he’s fussed over by longtime waitress, Doreen, “It never changes. The food is excellent and the place is kept immaculate.”

Any plans for an update of the menu or the decor?

Not if the customers have their way. “They say leave it the way it is,” says Otto Wittmeier. “It’s part of the nostalgia. It’s part of the history.” A few years back, in a nod to modern sensibilities, Wittmeier did decide to add wine and beer to the menu.

(The Modern Snack Bar is closed from mid-December until the last Tuesday in March.)

Cutchogue Diner, Cutchogue. For 89-year-old Mattituck native, Jeanne Tuthill, a trip to the 1941 Cutchogue landmark recalls a time when “if 20 cars went by in a day” on local roads, it constituted a traffic jam. During a recent visit, Tuthill is perched on a stool at the marble counter. She leans forward, takes a sip of coffee, and peers over her blue-tinted glasses at a visitor. “I’ve known this place since before you were born,” she says, reminiscing about a time when a wagon maker plied his trade nearby.

With its stainless steel siding and classic dining-car profile, the tiny 36-foot-long Cutchogue Diner, is the place to go for a side of nostalgia. Tourists—not to mention faithful cohorts of locals— can’t resist its appeal.

“Everyone in the whole town eats here,” says a waitress, handing off a large white plate of fried eggs to a couple parked at one of the handful of the tables by the Main Road-facing window. Waitresses are pouring coffee into half-filled cups and chatting up the customers. Back in the kitchen, fried eggs are popping on the grill. A cook takes a break and gazes out the screened kitchen door; the morning rush is starting to subside.

Service with a smile. Anthony Meras pilots the grill at the 100-year-old Star Confectionary in Riverhead. His grandfather bought the luncheonette in 1920.

Service with a smile. Anthony Meras pilots the grill at the 100-year-old Star Confectionary in Riverhead. His grandfather bought the luncheonette in 1920.

Like other diners, the place tends to attract the silver-haired crowd, but there are some younger diners as well. Tucking into a burger and fries one lunch hour is 20-something Brady, who works at Braun Seafood, just down the road. Why the diner and not fast food? “It’s probably cheaper here,” he says, adding that the little eatery is “pretty cool.”

Pies are homemade and lean toward the classics, like coconut custard, peach and blueberry; the latter are prepared with local fruit, says two-decade veteran, manager Cathy Checklick.

Opened in 1941, the existing diner was partly constructed from a predecessor that stood on the site. The original Mexican mahogany trim, stainless steel back wall and original counter are diner classics. The place “sends people back in time,” says Checklick, of the diner’s continuing allure.

Coronet Diner, Greenport. Current owner, Perry Angelson, strives to maintain the diner’s classic look while offering a menu that hews closely to standard diner fare: sandwiches, ice cream concoctions and homey breakfast foods, like pancakes, waffles and omelets. “I tasted pancakes for months and wound up gaining 15 pounds,” remembers Angelson, of the effort it took to perfect the current recipe.

It’s the spot’s history as a meeting place for Greenport movers and shakers that distinguishes the Coronet as much as the hungry throngs of tourists and locals who crowd the place, especially on weekends. Through the decades, the Coronet was the place where local business people and politicos would meet and greet, says Joe Townsend, Greenport’s mayor from 1974 to 1979.

“The Coronet was a place where I would meet people every day. Politics were discussed there. In the mid-‘70s, there were only 16 stores open in town. Since it was one of the few things open, we would go over there and talk about the future of Greenport. Local businessmen always had coffee there.”

And you could say Greenport’s current revival—with throngs of tourists and bustling shops—was cooked up at the Coronet.

“I met [Greenport Mayor] David Kapell in the Coronet some time around 1978 or 1979,” Townsend recalls. Based on a conversation with him there, I hired him as community development director,” reminisces Townsend of his encounter with the mayor who many credit for Greenport’s recent economic recovery.

What’s next for the Coronet and the East End’s other vintage dining spots? With the advent of chain restaurants, it’s hard to say whether these quaint eateries will withstand the competition. But customers keep coming—and showing their kids the old ways. New Yorker Linda VanKesteren, who summers in Shelter Island, and who, with her daughter Nicollete, was eating breakfast at the Coronet one bright August morning, says, “The place is charming.” Will she be coming back with Nicollete any time soon?

“Oh definitely,” she says, spearing a piece of ham, pepper and onion omelet. Nicollete, eying her pancakes, nods in agreement.

Cutchogue Diner
Main Road, Cutchogue
631.734.9056
Monday to Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Modern Snack Bar
Route 25, Aquebogue
631.722.3655
Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.
Closed Mondays.

Star Confectionery
4 East Main Street, Riverhead
631.727.9873
Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Sundays, 8 a.m. to noon.

The Coronet
2 Front Street, Greenport
631.477.9834
Daily, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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