A lovingly recreated old-school diner, serving an appropriately epic 75-item menu, 24 hours a day, opens in the lobby of a fancy boutique hotel in the ritziest part of SoHo. Sounds... obnoxious? Typical of NYC circa right now? Overpriced nostalgia?
Sure does, and yet Soho Diner—now slinging eggs, pancakes, burgers, fries, tuna melts, shakes, random dinner dishes, and so on, around the clock at the Soho Grand Hotel—is actually a pretty good, fun restaurant with some terrific food and prices that, surprisingly, aren't exorbitantly high. Not diner prices exactly, but definitely reasonable, regular-restaurant prices. In fact, and against all odds, I'd call Soho Diner a welcome addition to this part of town.
Let me explain, please.
The NYC diners of my youth were (uptown) Tom's, the Olympia, and the Broadway, and (downtown) Leshko's and Cup and Saucer. I loved them (or, at least, I frequented them) as much for the familiarity, the late-night hours, and the live-and-let-live attitude of the staff. The food, let's be honest, was sometimes not that great, but these were really good spots for late night dinners, soothing hangovers, and the occasional morning coffee and pancakes. And Soho Diner handles all of these more intangible, atmospheric qualities with aplomb. It's easy to imagine lingering here with a group of friends, especially since they serve booze.
The design is a respectful recreation of the form that doesn't veer too far into theme park territory. It's a big room, with seating for nearly 150, and even more in the garden area come spring (which has zero diner aesthetic). The booths and banquettes are vinyl and spacious, the tables are formica, and there's a breakfast counter in the back with fixed stools. And the cherry on top is the working jukebox that sits by the front door, 50 cents a play, and spins both vinyl and MP3s. The attentive staff wear classic uniforms, but there's no distracting role playing going on here. This isn't Ellen's Stardust.
The head chef is Ken Addington, a native New Yorker who's cooked in many places around town—most relevantly to this gig, Five Leaves in Greenpoint—and he does an excellent job of reenergizing or revamping a host of diner classics without destroying each dish's core appeal. Sometimes this just means an ingredient upgrade, like the first-rate maple syrup I poured over a stack of fluffy pancakes. The delicious Ham Steak and Eggs, on the other hand, had lots of new twists, such as eggs that were folded instead of fried, all soft and luxurious, and a mound of seriously fiery chimichurri, and a small salad of arugula studded with chicharron. This dish was the best of the many good things we ate at a press lunch this week.
There are burgers of course, including one made with stinky Epoisses cheese, and a vegan “Impossible” version. A Fried Chicken sandwich, a Grilled Cheese, and a Medianoche made with bologna are on offer as well. I really liked the Montauk Tuna Melt, which involved a slab of lightly-seared, very rare fish on an English Muffin with sharp melted cheddar, and the Beef On Weck, a fairly faithful take on that western New York favorite, except with much better bread, and juicier roast beef, and horseradish sauce with more zing, than anything I had the last time I was out there.
Everything comes with a pile of decent, straightforward fries, always important at a diner, but if you're having a party at your table get the Disco Fries, cut waffle style and smothered in both chicken sausage gravy and mounds of melted raclette. There are all kinds of "plates" and "dinner specials," from Pork Schnitzel to Turkey Pot Pie, Kasha Knish to a Lamb Shoulder Chop. My crew devoured a bowl of Rigatoni Bolognese, a hearty dish made richer still by the addition of ricotta cheese.
Soups, salads, snacks to share, many more eggy things and other breakfast-all-day fare... there's no way you can't find something that suits your mood. And for dessert, there are pies by the reliably-great Petee's, various cakes, milkshakes and sundaes, and a go-for-broke Molten Peanut Butter Banana Split.
Soho Diner is located at 320 West Broadway, between Canal and Grand Streets, and is open 24 hours every day (212-965-3011; sohodinernyc.com)