The Last Coffee Shop

Indeed, 3 Guys has become a veritable hot spot for uptown yummy mummies and their broods, as documented by Chanel scion Jill Kargman in her novel Momzillas: “This was the epicenter of mommypalooza,” she wrote. “All roads lead to 3 Guys.”

“It’s such a scene for the preschool set,” said Ms. Chaiken.

“You feel like you run into everyone,” said Samantha Kaufman, another local mom.

For some, it was a bit much to face at breakfast. “When I lived near 3 Guys, I really didn’t go there much because it was too much of a scene,” said Renee Tobin, 37, a mother of two (with another on the way). “I wasn’t interested in getting that dressed up in the morning.”

But most customers protest that these diners are special precisely because you don’t really have to dress up to eat there. Even Ladies Who Lunch, after all, don’t always feel like enduring the social scrutiny at La Goulue or Nello, especially if they are still in their Pilates pants, pre-blow-out and sans makeup.

“Sometimes when I went to Gardenia I didn’t look good, so I’d hide behind my bag,” Ms. Black admitted.

In their own version of causal “Fry-day,” high-society ladies and gents, celebrities and politicos have been scarfing down burgers at these Madison Avenue diners for decades. “Jackie Kennedy and J.F.K. Jr. used to eat here,” Sergios Despotis (known as Steve), owner of Viand on 78th Street for 35 years, said proudly. “Caroline still comes in. And Mayor Bloomberg, who lives right down the street, comes in two to three times a week for breakfast.”

“Mayor Bloomberg practices his Spanish with me,” piped up Viand waitress Mirta Alvarez.

Ms. Kaufman’s mother, Susan Leibowitz, recalled having lunch at 3 Guys with her daughters one day when the late socialite Nan Kempner came over and told her that this was her favorite coffee shop. “Her family was in from San Francisco—and she took them to 3 Guys!” she said.

Some of Gardenia’s celebrity patrons, meanwhile, included Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sarah Jessica Parker. “She got her hair done at the salon upstairs”—John Frieda—“and was supersweet,” Mr. Katsichtis said.

In the homey atmosphere of these coffee shops, boldface names literally rub elbows with doormen, and elderly patrons befriend young children.

“My daughter Grace regularly sees this elderly couple at 3 Guys who are always there at 12 o’clock,” Ms. Chaiken said. “As my mother said, ‘They take you from cradle to grave.’”

But can the Madison Avenue coffee shop itself fend off the Grim Reaper?

Dino Bastas, an owner of the New Amity Restaurant near 84th Street, which has been operating for 30 years, said his lease is up in May 2008, and he knows there will be a significant increase in rent due to market values. “We’ve attempted to talk with our landlord,” he said, “but this is a tough business. Corporate entities are willing to pay to have a presence on Madison Avenue. And landlords don’t want restaurants as tenants. A restaurant is not sexy.”

Viand’s landlord of 40 years, Dr. Edward Soufer, knows that leasing to a restaurant is difficult. “The insurance goes up,” he said. “Fumes, bugs and rodents can be a problem. It’s not as clean as having a clothing store in your building.”

The Last Coffee Shop