If you’re a New Yorker with disposable income and a fondness for restaurants, you’ve likely done one of the following things: eaten a locally sourced carrot; purchased New York-raised cuts of meat at a small neighborhood shop; had dinner in Williamsburg; listened to a server rattle off the provenance of each component of your dish; sipped a glass of natural wine to the tune of some cool but obscure music.
You can trace all of these experiences — now so common they’ve evolved into clichés — back to one place: Diner, a 60-seat Williamsburg restaurant that serves locally sourced and simply prepared food out of a refurbished dining car, which opened 20 years ago this month. Over the past two decades, it’s proven to be one of the city’s most influential restaurants, turning a neighborhood full of artists’ lofts and not much else into a culinary destination. Through its casual-hip service and ad hoc vibe — and a fanatical interest in all things locally and sustainably sourced — it has created a new blueprint for restaurants and hospitality that has since been copied around the world.
Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth in the old Diner back office, 1999. CreditCourtesy of The Marlow Collective
In 1998, friends Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth were living in a 6,000-square-foot Williamsburg loft, working together at the Odeon in Manhattan, and thinking about opening a restaurant. Their neighborhood dining options were limited at best but in Williamsburg, Tarlow remembers, “there was a sense that you could do whatever you want.” So they found an old dining car tucked beneath the Williamsburg Bridge and convinced their landlord to buy it and rent it to them. “It looked like a really bad cafeteria with orange Formica tables and a huge Coca-Cola machine on the bar,” Firth remembers.
Tarlow and Firth spent the better half of 1998 renovating the dining car and the attached back room by hand with the help of friends; Tarlow would work weekends at the Odeon, then use that money to pay everyone on Monday. They stripped the sheet rock behind the bar and found subway tiles, which they turned into a mosaic. (This was before every restaurant plastered its walls with subway tile.) “For us it was about salvaging what we had,” Tarlow explains. “We were obviously broke, so we weren’t thinking about buying new tile.”
Halfway through the renovation process, the pair met Caroline Fidanza, who had recently left the kitchen at the New American restaurant Savoy in Manhattan, through mutual friends; she would become the opening chef at Diner and one of the most quietly influential figures in the history of Brooklyn restaurants. Tarlow and Firth hired her without tasting a bite of her food, Tarlow remembers; the first dish of hers they tried was a traditional French cassoulet, carried from her apartment to the restaurant for a big party on New Year’s Eve 1998. “It was so good,” Tarlow remembers, “I knew all the effort and all the work was worth it. It was clear that Caroline could actually do the job.” The gas was turned on four days later, and Diner opened to the public.
The original team didn’t have a particular vision for the place; they just wanted to open a restaurant in their neighborhood where their friends could hang out. It attracted artists and musicians in particular. Firth remembers bartending on a quiet Sunday night and watching an unexpected hoard of people pile in through the door. He quickly realized that a friend of the fiendishly adored indie balladeer Elliott Smith was working that night, and Smith spent the rest of service D.J.ing.
Many of Diner’s stylistic quirks came from its signature slapdash approach. To this day, servers write the menu down on the white butcher paper that covers each table because Tarlow and Firth forgot to order menus for the opening. “It probably rubbed some people the wrong way, but I was a sucker for it,” remembers Peter Meehan, a longtime food writer and the current food editor at The Los Angeles Times. “Sometimes they even sat at the table with you. There was something honest and immediate about it; it was like a continuation of the improvisatory energy that the whole place had.”
Diner was immediately busy, partly because it fulfilled a need that nobody really knew existed. “People were just so desperate for community back then. There were all these big beautiful lofts and loft parties but not much going on in the streets,” remembers Zeb Stewart, who at the time was a woodworker living across the street. (He helped with the build-out of Diner and later opened the Williamsburg landmark Union Pool, after borrowing $500 from Firth and Tarlow to stock the bar.) Sean Rembold, who became the chef of Marlow & Sons, Diner’s sister restaurant, in 2005, remembers spending so much time at the restaurant on his off days that Tarlow had to ban him for 24 hours. “In its highest form it’s a place where people are working and having fun, and it’s contagious,” says Anna Dunn, who started as a barista, was the founding editor of Diner Journal, the restaurant’s quarterly magazine, and is now the director of special projects.
Good vibes, of course, cannot sustain a restaurant on their own, at least not for two decades. The food at Diner had its own perspective from the get-go, and it’s still one of the best dinners you can find in North Brooklyn. Fidanza’s food “was the best version of elevated home cooking,” Stewart remembers. “She was just so involved in every aspect of it — you felt like you were eating her personal food.” From very early on, Fidanza focused on sourcing the best local produce possible. “I wholeheartedly believed we were doing something real that other people made lame claims to but weren’t fully embracing in terms of operating sustainably and righteously,” Fidanza remembers. “And everybody mattered — it wasn’t just about me, or Andrew, or Mark. We were a part of something that was of our making.”
Firth and Tarlow, Fidanza says, wanted classic proteins to stay on the menu. From the beginning, there was a hangar steak, a half-chicken and a bowl of mussels. Fidanza put her creative efforts into the specials (whole bluefish, braised lamb shank) and starters, particularly those that used market-fresh produce. But “people freaked out about that hangar steak with mashed potatoes, rosemary and garlic,” Firth remembers. “It was so simple.”
And from the beginning, Fidanza’s burger was a crowd favorite. Eventually, their guests’ demand for grass-fed ground beef led the Diner team to begin buying whole animals from Fleishers, a new craft butchery upstate. Josh and Jessica Applestone, the butchery’s owners, trained Tom Mylan, then a manager at Marlow & Sons — and the future co-founder of the Meat Hook — to break them down. “If you really want to trace back the whole-animal movement in New York City, it was Caroline Fidanza,” Josh says. “She’s the one that did it. She’s the one who believed in us.” Soon, Tarlow had built Mylan a little refrigerated cutting room off the back of Diner. Later, the team opened a butcher store of its own, Marlow & Daughters, which now services Tarlow’s five Brooklyn businesses.
The shocking thing about Diner isn’t necessarily that it helped to usher in a whole new generation of restaurants across New York and the country that were serving grass-fed beef and local cabbage; it’s that Diner, despite the influx of condos and salad chains to its neighborhood, is still cool — and not just cool, but also nice about it. This is not and never has been a place where someone will look down their nose at you for not knowing what Treviso is. As Rembold remembers it, “it wasn’t about wanting to be the hottest restaurant in Brooklyn — it was about the team, and everybody was equal.” Even the diners.