February 22, 2024

I always read the whole menu at a diner but don’t really need to. My order is predictable and unremarkable: a cup of soup, cheeseburger with fries. Sometimes I’ll switch things up and have a Greek salad, extra feta cheese, or corned-beef hash and scrambled eggs, fries always remain. A cup of coffee—lots of milk—and a slice of pie. If I were to scroll back through my life, tallying every diner meal, every fat ceramic mug of watery coffee, I think they might number in the thousands. The most recent diner cheeseburger was at Old John’s, on the Upper West Side. The restaurant closed in 2020, another pandemic-era small-business casualty, only to be taken over and revived by a former employee, Louis Skibar. Now a successful restaurateur who co-owns the Toloache Restaurant Group, he started at Old John’s as a delivery boy in 1984. The new Old John’s is very much like the old Old John’s. The neon clock is still there, as are deco light fixtures and the black-and-white mosaic floor. But Skibar brightened up the place, swapping out the walls’ dark wood veneer for white tiling and lengthening the L-shaped counter just inside the door. He also gave the restaurant’s name a facelift: formerly Old John’s Luncheonette, it’s now—less charmingly but, as it’s open until 10 P.M., more honestly—Old John’s Diner. Happily, none of the changes make it feel modern. The ideal of a diner—its promise, its function—is not to be great but to be there. To be open when you need a restaurant to be open, to have seats when you need to sit, to exist sufficiently outside of time and space and trend that its reliability is itself reliable. So it was unnerving to discover that the food at the new Old John’s is a cut above. Before reopening, in early 2021, Skibar hired the “Top Chef” alum Grayson Schmitz and the pastry whiz Tanya Ngangan to revamp the menu. Eschewing the diner convention of calling dishes “homemade” even when they’re fresh off the Sysco truck, Skibar’s team makes each dish right there, from scratch. The chicken-noodle soup is soul-warming, with curly egg noodles and orange hunks of carrot and threads of white meat held in a rich, golden broth. The lemon-meringue pie is unimpeachable, with a buttery crumb crust and pucker-tart yellow curd under a snowcap of floaty, marshmallow-like meringue. A diner can certainly be bad, but can a diner be, in an objective, universal sense, good? Not the sort of good that’s good enough, or even above average, but the kind of good that’s worth going out of your way for, getting on the subway for, breaking your routine for? The value is not inherent in the restaurant itself but in the loving routine with which you burnish it. It can be baffling to an outsider to be introduced to someone’s favorite diner.