It was really a love story in the end.
The noise outside was consistent. Traffic, construction, and wandering conversations as New Yorkers enjoyed the relative peace of Memorial Day Weekend in the city. But for Steve, the owner of the New Amity Restaurant, it was the end.
The end of a 45-year love affair with the people of the Upper East Side who would frequent what very well could have been the best diner on Madison Avenue. There was an old-school charm to the place even though Steve ran a tight ship. Make no mistake about it. Steve was always on the job. Alert and aware. The first to spot a potential problem and the first to jump in and make sure it was smooth sailing at this one restaurant for almost half a century. No greater captain will you find when it comes to running a restaurant. A well-oiled machine needs a boss and that was Steve.
On the last day of his watch, a homeless man came into the restaurant asking for food. Steve politely told him to wait outside and he would bring him food. The man started to object for some strange reason and Steve warned that he would call the police. It was a ruse. Steve pretended to call the police. He had no enmity for the homeless man. He felt bad for him even though he was disturbing Steve’s customers. Steve handled the man as he had handled many a homeless man before him. With respect and with dignity but with a firm hand that said you need to respect my customers and my restaurant. That was the way Steve led New Amity. No nonsense. A commitment to customer service and amazing food. He had the formula and he stood at the counter area and surveyed each table. He knew when the salt shaker needed filling and he would say hi, ask about the family, see if you needed anything and then he was gone like a maestro back to conducting the flow of the place, coffee, menus, delicious food, more coffee and no pressure to rush out. But we all knew it wasn’t the right thing to do to loiter at a table because there were people outside the door waiting for a magic table too. The people of this neighborhood loved the New Amity Restaurant for 45 years. And for that same amount of time, so did Steve and the New Amity family. A happy place. Steve made it so. And so did Irma and all the waiters and busboys and cooks. Irma is gone now and Steve seems a shell of his old self without her.
“What are you going to do?” That has been Steve’s pat answer.
The last day has been like every other day so far.
“Back for one last time, huh?”
The waiters have always been characters lending to the personality of the joint. Oldtimers, like me, remember Gus, Milton, Frankie, Abner. Everybody was always nice to our kid, who would wolf down the silver dollar pancakes while reading a comic book, smiling and chilling out. Irma always had kind words and lollipops for all the kids.
On the last day of the New Amity Restaurant, a lazy Sunday in the middle of Memorial Day Weekend in an abandoned NYC, the regulars started to file in.
“Good morning, how are you?” asked Steve.
“How’s Steve doing?” someone asked Jesus the waiter who shook his head and replied, “It’s just another workday but he’s depressed.”
I ask Miguel the busboy who was wearing a mask, how he was doing after he asks me if I want an iced coffee (my usual), and he replies in broken English, “I’m just happy to work here, maybe something happens last minute?” and then he knocked on the wood atop one of the empty booths. His glass was still half full.
Nearby I hear Jesus the waiter again, the most outgoing of the current group of waiters, George (the whisperer) is hard to understand, “Here for one last time, huh?”
None of us know the future. We sit, drink coffee, and ponder what’s next?
I ask my high school pal Eddie, an acclaimed writer and graduate of Yale, a regular to beat all regulars, “How many meals have you had here at New Amity?”
“What’s five times a week over 30 years? Last year, 50 weeks out of the year? That’s 250 meals a year for 30-something years. It varies.”
“Which waiter do you think has been the most memorable?”
“They are all memorable in their own way.”
“Their delivery was also super-fast…10-15 minutes.”
“What do you mean? What do I like to eat? I like pancakes, waffles, and egg whites.”
“Was this the best diner in New York?”
“What’s your post-New Amity plan?”
“I’m going do what I do when I don’t come here.”
“I have lunch for breakfast and dinner for lunch and then for dinner, I have a frozen dinner and a bowl of cheerios.”
No, I didn’t really understand how my old friend’s new system was going to work…it didn’t really matter that much to me. Einstein wore the same suit all the time. Eddie would frequent New Amity.
An old customer stopped outside the restaurant, where we had been sitting at an outdoor table, one of the tables that were on the sidewalk. He looked at the large white sign in the window that read: After 45 years it’s time to say goodbye…”
“There’s nowhere else to go,” he was defeated like all of us.
“It was the Cheers of Madison Avenue,” opined an old lady who looked familiar, another regular who recognized the historic nature of the day. A day when the best diner on the Upper East Side was shut down after 45 years. Just another economic victim of rising costs.
Manfred Gogol, the artist, cynic, and rabble-rouser stopped by for an iced coffee, to snap some photos, and to check out the scene.
“Time to hang out at Starbucks, this place is toast,” he offered unsentimentally.
New Amity was not his jam or hang-out spot. He preferred checking out the action in Starbucks and Dean and Deluca before that (now a Butterfield Market). But for residents who lived near 84th and Madison, New Amity was our place and it was all about Steve.
I found out the news about The New Amity the day before when I met Eddie for coffee and saw the closing sign on the window. Eddie and I sat outside at a table in silence, except for the ongoing construction noise and the sound of Eddie’s spoon hitting the inside of his iced coffee glass. When I asked Steve what happened it was a fast tale of the landlord raising the rent. What was there to say really? After 45 years as the best diner on the Upper East Side, it was time to say goodbye. 45 years. Wow. Eddie summarized his feelings on the matter,” bummed out, man…I eat here like 5 times a week….breakfast at 8:15 and lunch at 12-12:30.” Eddie shared a couple more memories. “I used to come here a lot with my dad.”
I would miss the crispy french fries and juicy cheeseburgers, the iced coffee, and the friendly wait staff. Everything was always super quick and super delicious. Steve running the place, the cool mural of a beach scene on the wall, and the 80s music radio station that kept things lively. Mario the manager and part-owner…Milton, Gus, Frankie, Abner…
“Gus was here the other day,” added Eddie, “his hair was darker.”
“Must of dyed it, looking a bit like Bela Lugosi I bet.” Everybody loved Gus.
“Yeah, Steve is having a tough year,” said Eddie as we both sat nursing our iced coffees at an outside card table that would be put away for good the following day at 4 pm in the afternoon. For good. Eddie and I sat there stunned, really.
The next day, the last day, I went inside to shake Steve’s hand, pat him on the back, and wish him well. I asked him what the secret was to running a successful diner for 45 years. He went through the history of the place and his eyes were glassy and his voice was filled with emotion. New Amity was his life it helped him buy a house and pay for college for his kids. Now Irma was gone and the restaurant too.
” I love it. waking up at 4 am every day, coming here every morning and opening up and working in the kitchen and working the register and with the waiters and everybody, like a family.”
Rumor has it that Steve is already looking into opening up another diner somewhere in the neighborhood.
The Captain of the New Amity is not the type to retire quietly to the Greek Islands.
Illustration by Dreck