One night in 1976, a group of four young men walked into the Empire Diner on 10th Avenue and 22nd Street and asked for hamburgers. It was clear they’d never been there before.
“I told them we didn’t make hamburgers, that we had some other stuff,” said Carl Yorke, then 23, a novice actor who spent four months waiting tables at the Empire during the weird little diner’s first year of operation.
The young men, who looked like “hormone-driven Jersey boys,” were not pleased. What kind of backwards diner didn’t serve hamburgers?
“They looked around, and they went, ‘Oh, fuck! This place is full of fags!’ And the place just emptied out,” said Mr. Yorke. “This brawl broke out on the sidewalk. And these guys, the customers of the Empire Diner—they may have been gay, but they weren’t pussies.”
Mr. Yorke, who had just moved to New York from San Francisco, ran into the basement and grabbed a shovel—not to fight, but to protect his face from a disfigurement that would have ended his fledgling acting career. Eventually the brawl died down, and one of the Empire’s owners, a chubby, handsome guy in his late 20s named Richard Ruskay, ducked inside. A tear on his preppy sweater indicated that he had gotten in the mix, and the look on his face said he was deeply thrilled about it.
“He immediately started looking in the mirror,” Mr. Yorke recalled. “He’d gotten hit in the eye, and he couldn’t wait for it to turn black. He really wanted a shiner!”
In 1992, Richard Ruskay died of AIDS at the age of 44, and shortly thereafter the restaurant was sold by its sole surviving co-founder to two longtime employees: executive chef Mitchell Woo, who’d been there since 1980, and general manager Renate Gonzales, who started on the graveyard shift in 1986. The Empire chugged along for almost two decades under their leadership—mellowing out somewhat as Chelsea changed around them and turning, eventually, into a major tourist attraction that drew celebrities like Kate Winslet, Ethan Hawke, and Julia Roberts.
At midnight this past Saturday night, the Empire served its last meal after operating continually for 34 years. Due to a severe rent hike by the landlord, the diner lost its lease and will be taken over by the Gotham City Restaurant Group, the company that also owns Coffee Shop in Union Square.
It is tempting to say that the passing of the Empire Diner marks the end of an era in New York, that it’s yet another symptom of the city losing its soul. But the truth is more complicated than that, as the Empire was always already a whimsical, nostalgic place, and never a holdover from more “authentic” times. The diner was meticulously designed by young people—some of whom worked at MoMA!—to appeal to other kids their age who sought a taste of the blue-collar eating experience but wanted to get it while hanging out with other artists, actors and writers like themselves. It is this built-in nostalgia that allowed the Empire to survive for 34 years, even as Chelsea changed from a wasteland, to a center of gay life, to the world capital of contemporary art.
The kids who went to the Empire during the late 1970s, when it first opened, genuinely thought they were the coolest kids in New York City. They loved the Empire because it wasn’t just a diner but an elegant, Art Deco-inspired reenactment of one. Converted by Ruskay and his partners, Carl Laanes and Jack Doenias, from an old greasy spoon originally built in 1946, the Empire sported flashing lights along its chrome exterior, black tabletops, candles, live piano music and a menu that didn’t have anything so obvious or clichéd as “hamburgers” on it.
“That would have been too predictable, too obvious,” Mr. Yorke said. “The Empire Diner was like a fantasy land where you could pretend to be a Buddy Can You Spare a Dime character in a ’30s movie, but eat like you were a guest in Dinner at Eight. And the Dinner at Eight crowd would never have hamburgers.”
Ruskay loved a charming gimmick. He was a fantasist-entrepreneur—part Wonka, part Sevigny—who was always coming up with ideas for New York establishments that involved some kind of unusual, witty quirk. At the eponymous restaurant on the Upper West Side he co-owned, there were no menus, and customers had to order the one dish that was being served. At the 50′s-inspired Tex-Mex place in Chelsea he co-founded in 1982, waiters walked around in black leather pants. The clothing store he helped start in 1979, N.Y. Jock, Inc. featured dressing rooms outfitted with working showers and exercise machines. He had one idea—this one never materialized—to open a restaurant in Times Square where customers could only use one bill to cover their entire check and would not be offered change, meaning everything on the menu cost either $1, $5, $10, $20, etc.
During the early years of the Empire—before AIDS came in 1981, before families moved to the neighborhood, before the warehouses west of 10th Avenue were taken over by the galleries—the Empire was a mecca for hipsters and gay men, who would go there early in the morning after hours spent dancing at clubs in the Village. It got so busy at 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning, that a group of friends ready to sober up after a night at the Spike or the Eagle’s Nest—the two leather bars by the river—might find themselves having to wait 45 minutes for a table.
It was, by all accounts, really fun. The lighting made everyone look great, and people had sex in the bathroom all the time. There were drag queens on roller skates and transvestites with beautiful skin. Two of the regulars were a pair of beefy fellows who would dress up in police uniforms, trick guys they liked into thinking they were under arrest and take them home with them on their motorcycle. It was a boozy, druggy scene, inflected as much by its surroundings in scary, out-of-the-way Chelsea as it was by the winking design that marked its interior.
The night the restaurant opened for business, Ruskay and his partners threw an all-night party that drew an overflow crowd of hundreds. Nineteen seventy-six was a leap year; the party started at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 28, and kept going till breakfast the next morning. Someone dressed in a King Kong costume tromped around on the roof, theatrically swatting the air and circling the model of the Empire State Building that is still planted there today. There were actors, writers, musicians, artists, you name it—plus drag queens and lots of guys from the leather bars, some coming up from the Village and others coming down from uptown.
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.”
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?”