Restaurant Trend: New-Wave American Diners - Mr. Donahue's

Why the all-American diner is a new playground for chefs

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She's sitting alone at one of the two tiny tables at Mr. Donahue's in New York City. Her hair is coiffed and white, and although the chicken-fried pork cheeks on her plate are delicately massacred, she's still hungry.

"What's that?" she asks the lone waiter, pointing to the wood-lined wall with photos of desserts. Ah, the strawberry cake. She'll take it, she tells him, and the lean, hipstery guy is just as delighted.

"I've told every single person working here that this is your living room. Treat everyone you know like your guests, personally," Ann Redding, the chef/co-owner, says later. "I've always loved diners. When I was kid, I pretended I had one called Ann's Diner in my mom's kitchen."

The Buddha on the shelf above the bar reminds me of her and her husband Matt Danzer's other project (the always-packed Uncle Boons), and right below Buddha is a photo of Danzer's late grandfather and his detective cap, the namesake of this nook of a diner sending out excellent comfort food that still feels new.

"The classic diner is fun, because it's not rooted in a certain type of cuisine," Ham El-Waylly, the chef and co-owner of Hail Mary in Brooklyn, says. "Here, you find chicken francese and borscht next to a burger. The freedom gives you a lot of room to play."

Which is why you're starting to see more chefs like Redding, Danzer and El-Waylly take on the all-American diner, tweaking here and there, and trying to capture that front-of-house flair and flush of familiarity when eating food that nourishes and soothes, like Mr. Donahue's clever pattypan Parm (see the recipe).

The diner began as a horse-drawn wagon for journalists at the Providence Journal back in 1872, However, that sleek, Streamline Moderne, bullet-like look came with the prefabricated diner construction in the 1920s and 1930s, and diners spread from the Northeast after a small business boom, post-World War II. While fast food invaded those consumer markets in the 70s, the diner remained because there are some things an intercom couldn't change—"If you go to a diner, yes, it's a quick experience," Richard Gutman, a Johnson & Wales University professor and diner historian, says in Smithsonian magazine. "But it's not an anonymous experience." And now it flourishes.

Bright pink deviled eggs from Early Society | Photo: Marcin Cymmer Photography

Four times a week over the past five years, Ham and Sohla El-Waylly sauntered over to Malibu Diner in Chelsea after shifts cooking at Atera, Momofuku and Battersby, and their order never changed: patty melt and mozzarella sticks. Though the staff knew them, "they were still abrasive, and it was nice," Sohla says with a chuckle. John Comerford, the chef at the newly opened Early Society in Chicago, remembers Sunday mornings at Steven's in Woodridge, Illinois, but now he slathers strawberry jam on the iconic sausage, bacon, egg and cheese on white bread. And at Phoenicia Diner in the Catskills, owner and native Brooklynite Mike Cioffi had a bone to pick with local restaurants: "The idea that the Catskills is the market basket for most of the restaurants in the city, why not try to do something closer to home?" So he revamped this old diner into the food editors' darling it is today.

"I have a Rolodex of diners. I consult it every time I go on a trip," Molly Mitchell, the chef and co-owner of Rose's Fine Food in Detroit, says. But she wasn't looking to open one herself after returning home from working at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco until she and her cousin/co-owner, Lucy, found this fading diner four years ago.

Dishes, real and drawn, line the walls at Mr. Donahue's

"There is an aspect of the diner where it's part of the community. It's a democratic food experience with all different types of people," Mitchell says. "But I also wanted to make good food."

Whether that means reviving family favorites, like Mom's doughy crybabies, for newcomers and old regulars at bustling Rose's, or cooking simply but precisely and seasonally at Mr. Donahue's, it comes down to those iconic dishes, reimagined with fresher ingredients and a bit more technique. But what hasn't really changed with this new rise of diners is that welcoming communal aspect of this distinctly American institution.

"People talk to each other and share food with strangers, which is lovely to see especially in New York City, which at times is very anonymous," Redding says.

"It's about making people feel like you want them here, and they're your guests for the next hour," Danzer adds. "It might be giving them a glass of lemonade as they wait outside."

Or a lovely order of strawberry cake as a treat to yourself.