Classic NYC diners face uncertain future: 'Everything changed now'

New York City classic diners stand as timeless sanctuaries, not just serving food but embodying cultural landmarks where every booth can tell a story. Simple, iconic, and satisfying, they echo the classic qualities of a New York City diner. Yet, finding one is becoming increasingly difficult.

Harriet Cook and her husband Don, tourists from Highlands, North Carolina, discovered this first-hand.

"It's New York. You have to," Harriet said. They were determined to experience breakfast at a quintessential, hole-in-the-wall city diner. Their quest led them to Hector's Diner, one of the city's oldest eateries, but only after a little help actually locating one from Siri.

Located in the Meatpacking District, Hector's has been a fixture since 1949. The diner's gritty exterior might look familiar to movie buffs; it's been featured in "Taxi Driver" and several "Law & Order" episodes. Hector's not only survived the transformation of the Highline from an active railway to a trendy park but also witnessed the Meatpacking District's dramatic change.

‘I always wanted to be in a business’

Freddy Manjarrez, who bought Hector's in 1988, reflected on the broader trend affecting diners citywide. "That was my dream, I always wanted to be in a business," he said, but acknowledged, "everything changed now."

The decline isn't isolated. From Odessa's in the East Village to the all-night Florent, a 2019 New York Times report highlighted an average of 13 diner closures annually over three years – a trend exacerbated by the pandemic.

"We began to notice that these small little shops were disappearing, and when they closed, it was like a whole look and feel of the neighborhood change," observed New Yorkers Karla Murray and James Murray.

This couple has embarked on documenting these shifts through their book series "Store Front NYC," focusing on the facades of mom-and-pop shops, dive bars, and diners.

"We want the whole collection of our storefronts to kind of tell the story of how important these are to the fabric of New York City," James Murray says.

The recurring theme behind many closures is the unsustainable rent increases. "They don't own the building and the rent just gets, you know too much for now," Carla Murray explains, a sentiment echoed across the city's changing landscape.

Perhaps no diner has reached the iconic status of Tom's Restaurant in Morningside Heights, famously featured on "Seinfeld." Mike Zoulis, the diner's manager and owner, shared a little-known fact: "They didn't actually film in here. That's [what] a lot of people think, but they did film the commercials, and they sat in the last, the last row, the last table in the middle row," he revealed.

His recipe for a successful diner remains straightforward: "The successful diner is very simple, good food, good service and cleanliness."

It also helps when landlords don't raise rents too high.

Back at Hector's, amid rumors of new developments and rising costs, regulars like Adam Rames are not ready to see their haven disappear.

"Hector's has always been here," he remarked. "It seems like a family, second family place coming to socialize with people sit down and don't worry about anything,"