The End of the Empire

 

THE PARTY COULDN’T last forever. The 1980s saw the neighborhood grow less dangerous and more residential. Rents skyrocketed; single occupancy apartments were converted into co-ops. Tailors, florists, specialty grocers, restaurants and other small businesses sprouted, and families moved in. Meanwhile, gay life in Chelsea—and everywhere else—was shaken to its core by the arrival of AIDS.

“Everything slowed down in the ’80s,” said Charles Kaiser, the author of The Gay Metropolis. “By 1985, I would say gay nightlife was about 50 percent of what it had been 10 years earlier. It was a really grim, depressing time.”

This inevitably changed the character of the Empire, to the point where the novelist Ann Beattie—who moved to Chelsea in 1980—thought of it as a fun neighborhood place to pass by on her evening stroll because there were always people sitting outside who wanted to pet her dog.

“It wasn’t extremely fashionable, to tell you the truth,” Ms. Beattie said of the ’80s Empire. “You probably would have gone to Café Central if you wanted to be fashionable. If you wanted to plop down for a cup of coffee, you’d go to the Empire.”

Not that the diner had been deserted by the glamorous creative types who had made it such a hot spot when it first opened. “You’d see actors in there late at night; you would see photographers,” said Ms. Beattie, who set a few scenes of her forthcoming novella, Walks With Men, at the Empire Diner in 1980.

Nor had it lost its edge, according to Ms. Gonzales, who found some of what went on at the diner pretty shocking when she started in 1986. 

“I saw some really weird stuff going on here,” she said, sitting at one of the tables in front of the restaurant on Sunday evening. “You know, a woman coming in with her boyfriend on a leash. On a leash! And he had to sit on the floor instead of the chair. It took me a little while to get used to it—I would say, ‘Oh my God, look what walked in!’ But after a while, it just becomes part of the Empire Diner. It became a lot calmer after a few years.”

That was when the art world came.

In 1987, the Dia Center for the Arts opened on 22nd Street, foreshadowing the arrival of the hundreds of art galleries that would start moving into the neighborhood en masse during the late 1990s. With them came a new era for the Empire, as art dealers started going there with clients—often bringing their slides—and ordering food from them at lunchtime. A 1998 Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker written by Deborah Solomon called it a “glitz-free, gemutlich place” that was taking its turn as the art world’s designated hangout, just as the Cedar Tavern, Max’s Kansas City and the Odeon had done in decades past.

Ms. Solomon closed the piece with a quote from “eighties art star” Sandro Chia, who lent his name to the Odeon’s Steak au Poivre dish but had since become a vegetarian. Asked what dish he would name after himself at the Empire, Mr. Chia responded, “Probably cornflakes with low-fat milk.”

The implication was, of course, that the Empire—and New York City along with it—had gone soft. And when you hear stories about the old days—about how a masochist cut himself to ribbons in the bathroom and came out “smiling like a Cheshire cat,” for instance, or how James Newman would flirt with straight girls at the counter while playing the piano by staring at them through a mirror—it’s easy to feel like you missed out on something that can never happen in your city again. But is there no comfort in knowing that even in the late 1970s, kids in New York were angsty enough about the times they were living in that the coolest place they could think to go for fun was the ironic, defiantly ahistorical Empire Diner?

At the party on Sunday, waiters who worked at the Empire during the 1990s reminisced and paid tribute to the restaurant.

“For me, what was really cool and interesting is the fact that the Empire was constant—through all the years, it never wavered,” said David Saunders, who now designs gift baskets. “The area changed, the galleries came. But the Empire was still here.”

As the sun started to set, the party dwindled, and people started to look really sad. One woman, who worked the night shift at the Empire while training to be a makeup artist, looked like she was about to cry.

“It’s part of life,” said a long-haired young guy named Thomas Simon, a former waiter who plays guitar in a band. “We have to roll with the punches, ride the wave, you know?”

lneyfakh@observer.com