The End of the Empire

James Newman, a handsome Columbia grad who had recently quit his job in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was on piano that wild first night. Over the course of about many hours, the Westchester-bred 28-year-old cycled through each of the 20 songs he knew on the 1930 Steck piano in the corner. At one point, he said, he turned around and saw Leonard Bernstein over his one shoulder and Aaron Copland over the other. No one could hear him play through the racket. “It was like a barnyard,” the 62-year-old said on Monday. “People kept coming in, and we were like, ‘There’s no more room!’ It was like a Marx brothers movie. It was the beautiful, the ugly, the good, the bad—everyone was here.”

It was late afternoon, and Mr. Newman was seated at a table outside of the Empire while now former employees wearily put things into boxes. The day before, the diner had hosted a big all-day party for friends and old Empire staff; hundreds of people showed up. Feelings of resentment toward the landlord who had raised the rent were openly aired by ex-waiters and waitresses as they held forth about their years at the diner and rifled through piles of old Polaroids.

Mr. Newman remembered how he had decided to rent a room around the corner the day he heard that Ruskay was opening Empire. Ruskay, in his late 20s then, had recently proven his talents as a promoter and restaurateur as the co-founder—and namesake—of a superhip late-night establishment on the Upper West Side. Ruskay’s is said to have attracted local residents like Harold Brodkey, as well as celebrities like John Lennon and Andy Warhol, who knew they could go there without being bothered by fans. Thanks in part to this pedigree—as well as its location on a strange, dangerous block in Chelsea dotted with gas stations and traveled mainly by trucks carrying nuclear waste—Ruskay’s new venture was the object of intense hype in New York’s gay community, as well as among the creative types who self-identified as the city’s young intelligentsia.

Actor Keith McDermott was 26 and living uptown with his boyfriend at the time, the novelist Edmund White, when he learned about Empire and applied to work as a waiter there. His interview with Ruskay, he said, reminded him of auditioning for a major Broadway play.

“It was like a casting call,” Mr. McDermott said by phone on Monday night. “It was a lot of people making appointments and coming in over a couple of days, and it was all these hip young people trying to get work there. As I remember, Ruskay did hire really appealing young people. Any other waiting job I went in for, I didn’t want, really. This one I remember thinking, ‘I hope I can get this.’”

Mr. McDermott didn’t get the job. One guy who did was Mr. Yorke, who claims to be the Empire Diner’s first waiter ever—a designation he is sure some would contest. “The staff was very impressed with itself,” said Mr. Yorke. “We thought we were more important than the famous people who came in. We were attracting people like Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel! We were hot!”

The routine for Mr. Yorke—who was not gay, and kept it a secret from customers and the rest of the staff so that he wouldn’t lose tips—consisted of an 11:30 p.m. arrival, followed by a quick dinner alongside a group of customers who tended, at that hour, to be very well dressed and well behaved. “Then they’d all go away,” he said, “and then suddenly, at 3 a.m., having gone out and gotten fucked up at one of these bars, they’d be back in there with their costumes on. It was like Halloween every night.”

Mr. Newman, the piano player, remembers the debauchery being pretty extreme.

“We were all high!” he said. “I would turn around any given night and I’d have a friend with a foot-long line of cocaine saying, ‘Oh, this is for you, enjoy.’” Most of his tips, he said, came in the form of drugs, and he was regularly taking hash, opium, mescalin, acid, and magic mushrooms while on the job. “Playing on mushrooms,” he said, “was really hard.”

The neighborhood at that time was rough, and despite the illegal things that might have been going on inside the Empire, its clientele as well as its flashy aesthetic made it a target for local gangs of kids, who stoned the windows and sometimes attacked patrons on their way home.

“There were several gangs who were based in the projects along Ninth Ave, and they had a special hatred for gays,” Edmund White recalled. “Gays trying to get out of the West Village, where many of them lived, and going up to those leather bars, would wear whistles around their necks and then blow on them to call each other if they were attacked. I remember a bunch of kids pursuing me down the street with a baseball bat.”

Mr. White, who now lives in an apartment just a few blocks from the diner, was among the revelers Mr. Yorke probably saw walk in during that first year.

“The leather bars wouldn’t really get going until midnight, and then you’d get hungry at three or four in the morning,” he said. “You could actually have sex in back rooms at those bars, so it wasn’t that you were going to take someone home and then get something to eat. You would have already had sex several times and then you could go there.”

The novelist Felice Picano would drop by after nights at Studio 54 and the Flamingo.

“It looked like 8 p.m. anywhere else!” he said. “Cabs would pull over, limos would pull over, people would fall or stumble out. There would be drag queens, there would be people in costumes from parties, there would be people in tuxedoes and dinner dress. We’d be there in A-shirts, guinea tees and jackets.”

They would eat breakfast.

“They used to have terrific omelets—three-egg omelets—and all our drugs would have worn off so we wanted to put something in our bodies,” said Mr. Picano. “A boyfriend of mine referred to it as the Vampire Diner, which is what we ended up calling it because we’d only be there early in the morning.”