Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nick has fun. Above, the interior of Lodi, where, as with so many New York restaurants, outdoor dining is also available.
There is no shortage of options available for breakfast in New York – despite the fact that Maialino and its cacio e pepe eggs are still unavailable due to an ongoing legal dispute between the hotelier and the owner of the freehold that has kept this restaurant closed for over two years now – but really that particular restaurant has always been hors concours. If you’re visiting New York, wherever you may be staying, there is invariably a diner somewhere nearby that is happy to serve you breakfast.
I have long memories of their collective charms. As an impoverished student on my first trip to New York in 1971; as a father of three staying at The Alex Hotel on E 45th Street opposite the aptly named Comfort Diner in 2008; and on this, our most recent visit, when I stumbled upon two, hitherto unknown to me, Old John’s Diner and the (unrelated) Skylight Diner, close to Penn Station with its recently revealed Moynihan Train Hall, home to Amtrak.
What attracted me initially to Old John’s Diner was its proud claim to serve freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast, something I consider extremely important early in the morning but which has become a most unusual commodity. But here it does, in fact, continue to exist and is proudly offered centre stage on their breakfast menu. It is excellent (small $5, large $7).
Diners’ menus are not known for their originality. Here there are one or two different dishes – a frittata florentine, a fresh mozzarella omelette or one with goat’s cheese, and their version of shakshuka, which was good but I missed the crumbled feta on top. My friend’s oatmeal was good, as was their latte.
The lighting and the booths here date from the founding of the diner in 1951, when it was known as Old John’s Luncheonette. It was recently bought and its spirit rejuvenated by restaurateur Louis Skibar, a Bolivian immigrant who in 1984 secured his first job in New York making deliveries for this diner and has to date opened 18 restaurants. His magic here shows what an excellent restaurateur Skibar is.
About the only major change here, and at the Skylight Diner, over the years has been in the origins of those who serve you. Today, they are almost entirely of Latin American origin: the cooks, the waiting staff and, at the Skylight Diner, the receptionist, who makes a point of calling everyone ‘darling’ although she can be no more than 30.
The set-up is similar at the two diners. There is a television behind the bar showing soundless sport. There is a large display of cakes on offer behind a glass-fronted refrigerator. And the food and coffee are good. At the Skylight Diner a bowl of Greek yoghurt, blueberries and honey, together with a latte, set me up for my trip on the Long Island Railroad to visit our 89-year-old friend who in 1939 had travelled from Germany to Manchester as part of the Kindertransport organisation to spend the subsequent six years with my grandparents.
While diners continue to offer their long-established version of hospitality, it is fascinating to see in New York – where on every block there seems to be a building site – how developers are using hospitality as they open these new developments. This is certainly the case with Lodi, the first of a series of cafes and restaurants to reignite the long-established Rockefeller Plaza, and Ci Siamo, the latest Italian outpost of Union Square Hospitality Group, on W 33rd Street, whose location is so awkward to find that its website proclaims: ‘We can be a bit tricky to find on your first visit. A few pro tips to tracking down your tagliatelle.’ Do look these up and follow them. The easiest access is not from W 33rd Street but from 9th Avenue.
By contrast, Lodi is extremely obvious, located at No 1 Rockefeller Plaza. Its ambition is obvious too – it aims to be a community-based cafe and in this aim it succeeds completely. My lunch here was terrific.
I was shown through, walking past a display of cakes, desserts and their fabulous breads, to table no 15, the location of which could not have been better – for me, anyway. It was by a ledge overlooking a large window through which was an uninterrupted view of half a dozen bakers hard at work. As a neophyte baker, I was in heaven.
The man who leads the Lodi team is Ignacio Mattos, who has already opened the lauded Estrela and Alto Paradiso; the baker is Louis Volle; and the head chef is Maxime Pradié. Everything is made from scratch (the antithesis of baking off-site and shipping in before reheating) and everything that I enjoyed was served stylishly and, most importantly, in the correct, Italian portion size.
Having been seated and while enjoying a can of excellent Abandoned hard cider, I saw with one eye (the other was fixed firmly on what the bakers were baking) that the specials of the day included crostini di tonno ($24), which I ordered. What arrived was a thinly sliced piece of their rice bread covered in a thick layer of tuna tartare mixed with Calabrian chilli, so expertly cut that none of the tartare spilled off the bread. It was spicy, salty and absolutely delicious.
Having been more than satisfied on the savoury side, I thought I would put Lodi to the real test and ordered a crème caramel and a cappuccino, not expecting the kitchen to show the restraint that both these items require: I believe that in particular the American way with coffee is often over the top with too much milk, and served in such large cups that the coffee is unnecessarily diluted.
Not here. The dessert was perfect: the right size, the correct concentration of burnt caramel, with the lovely sweetness of the syrup to finish. And the cappuccino was served correctly in a modest teacup, as though we were in Peck in Milan, a source of much obvious inspiration at Lodi. But inspiration is one thing: here the execution is the real thing. I paid my bill of $64 with great pleasure.
Once you have found your way to the front door of Ci Siamo (it is above one of USHG’s Daily Provisions cafes) on the ground floor, you will need to navigate a large staircase before you find first of all the bar and then the receptionist to show you to your table. We fortunately had a booth in a restaurant that even on a Monday night was extremely busy and pretty noisy.
Our meal got better with each course. The first courses were slightly too salty, particularly a dish of marinated courgettes with tomatoes and flaked almonds, though the irresistible gnocchi fritti made up for it. Our main courses were good, especially a dish of rigatoni with guanciale (pork jowl) and cavatelli with lobster. And our desserts were terrific: an affogato; an unusual blend of goat’s milk and lemon ice cream; and a wonderful lemon tart on a bed of the finest pastry.
We drank a bottle of Castell’in Villa 2018 Chianti Classico from an exciting list that included the names of the beverage director, the three sommeliers, and even that of the beverage apprentice. That was an unusual, and impressive, first.
Old John’s Diner 148 W 67th Street, New York
Skylight Diner 402 W 34th Street, New York; tel: +1-212-244-0395
Lodi 1 Rockefeller Plaza, New York
Ci Siamo 440 W 33rd Street Suite 100, New York; tel: +1-212-219-6559