In the late 1970s, I was in college and my sisters were in high school. When I was at home, we all liked to relax in the family room and play records (yes, real vinyl 33⅓ rpm ones) on my father’s old phonograph. Among our favorites, which we played over and over again, was Billy Joel’s The Stranger. We would muse and hypothesize about what the songs really meant and, in a few cases, what the correct lyrics were. We particularly loved “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” with its key changes and song-within-a-song. When Billy Joel sang about Brenda and Eddie always being a hit “at the Parkway Diner,” we knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Plaza,” one of us would say, exchanging knowing glances with the others.
In our neighborhood, when you said “the diner,” it only meant one thing: Don-Len’s Plaza Diner on Route 59 in Nanuet, right across from the mall. (It lives on today as the Nanuet Diner.) There were plenty of diners all over the place, but only the Plaza was the diner. That’s because it was the gathering place for teens and young adults, while still being popular with families. You could come in with a date or with your whole crowd. It was open 24 hours a day and, most of the time, you could count on a cacophony of conversations. When the movies let out on a Saturday night, you could barely get in the place. Same thing after the bars closed down at 2 in the morning. Same thing on Sunday morning, when families came in for brunch. If you had to wait for a table, you could sit on one of the long vinyl banquettes out in the lobby by the pay phone (remember those?). The lobby had doors at either end, one facing Nova Lighting and Gaylin’s Housewares, the other leading to the parking lot of the decrepit Rockland Plaza. Once the county’s shopping epicenter (before the mall came in, it was anchored by W.T. Grant Co. on one end and Grand-Way on the other), by the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the place had deteriorated into a series of vacant storefronts and discount stores that seemed to come and go every month or so. Eventually, it stabilized a bit when Marshalls and Barnes & Noble came in. But through all the changes, the Plaza Diner remained the one stalwart soldier, always ready to serve you anything your heart desired, any time of day or night.
The first thing you noticed when you pulled open the interior doors was the pastry case. There would be strawberry shortcake, mile-high with whipped cream. There would be a tall seven-layer chocolate cakes. Then the cheesecakes, perhaps cherry or blueberry or pineapple. Cannoli, giant chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate cream and banana cream pies.
The menu was a book. There wasn’t much missing. Want a steak? Pancakes and eggs? Shrimp scampi? A salami sandwich? Spaghetti and meatballs? Spinach pie? An ice cream sundae? They had it. Greek, Italian, Asian and Jewish specialties, check! (Who ever heard of Mexican in New York back then?) There was even a note on the menu to the effect that if you didn’t see what you wanted, you should just ask and they’d make it for you if they could.
My parents took me here as a kid, and seafood was the name of the game. Dad liked the scallops, Mom liked the whole baby flounder or a fried fish sandwich, and I salivated over broiled bluefish (which, incidentally, I have never seen in California).
On the weekends, a long, gleaming salad bar would be rolled out onto the floor. It cost extra to get the salad bar with your meal, but I begged my father for it. I seem to remember that there were plenty of crisp greens and salad makings, but I thumbed my nose at that stuff. I headed straight for the noodle pudding, the pickled herring in cream sauce and the rigatoni with tuna.
When I landed my first job out of college, on the night shift, I’d head to the diner after work for cheesecake with my buddy, Bob. Or I’d drive over there when I woke up around noontime for spanakopita because I knew a certain really cute waitress would be on duty.
I wasn’t faithful, however (to the diner, not the waitress). In fact, you could say that I was downright promiscuous. I’d bop over to Janet Hogan’s down in the swamp hollow in West Nyack. In a hard rain, the whole area would flood and you couldn’t get near the place. The rest of the time, however, they had great challah bread that was served with every entrée. Or I’d head south on Route 303 to the Golden Eagle Diner, just across the New Jersey state line in Northvale.
When I started working day shift, I became enamored of the kosher deli in our neighborhood (described yesterday). After I tired of that, however, I became attached to the Red Eagle Diner (known years before as the Spring Valley Diner and not to be confused with that other color eagle in Bergen County) on the corner of Route 45 and Route 59, one of the busiest intersections in all of Rockland County. It was located next to an Orthodox Jewish bakery and an Italian barber shop, across from the old Shopper’s Paradise, later Masters, later the flea market.
Sometimes I’d stop in at 6:00 in the morning for oatmeal. They’d heat the milk so it didn’t make the cereal cold. The place was staffed by crusty waitresses of the old school who’d actually yell “Whiskey down!” when a customer would order rye toast.
But mostly I’d stop in after work. They knew me so well that they’d see me walking through the parking lot and have my iced tea with plenty of lemon on the counter before I sat down on a stool. Someone would be playing Springsteen on the jukebox as I dug into my rice pudding. You could stay as long as you wanted and chat with the servers.
Years later, when I lived in Connecticut, I experienced pretty much the same thing at a Greek diner in Danbury. It was more than just food.
It was almost like family.
Tomorrow: The pizza place