Some old New York diners never die. If they aren't carted off to uncertain fates in parts north or south, they're reinvented like Chelsea's Empire Diner—more than once, if they're lucky. This gleaming moderne landmark was most recently revived in January by Amanda Freitag, whose cooking had earned Chowhound props long before she started chopping upstart alpha chefs on TV's Food Network.
At the Empire, she dresses up American standards with unexpected ingredients and an extra helping of vegetables. Broccoli adds a dash of green to an upmarket mac 'n' cheese of orzo, Parmesan, and black truffle butter, and the chef's spin on Buffalo wings replaces chicken with skate and blue cheese with crème fraîche. Lemon chicken—served in a winning light sauce of veal jus, butter, and lemon under a canopy of fried chicken skin—is "moist, flavorful, and bright in a way that roasted chicken rarely is," coasts writes on Chowhound. Brussels sprouts with chile jam are a sweet, piquant side.
Freitag's reset is only the latest for a restaurant whose previous rebirth in 1976 made it a magnet for a lively crowd emblematic of fast-changing late-century Chelsea: gays, artists, writers, boldface names like Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry, all rubbing elbows at a long-running party that finally came to an end in 2010. Now the party's getting started again, and the resurrected Empire is already a tough table. Lunch service begins April 1, and this being a diner, it plans to go 24/7 by summer.
Empire Diner [Chelsea]
210 10th Avenue (at W. 22nd Street), Manhattan
Photo of Empire Diner's lemon chicken and Brussels sprouts by Mark Hokoda