It all seems so 1976: First, find a decrepit old diner in a remote part of town. Fix it up nice (but not too nice). Serve better food, and play cool music. Then sit back and wait for the hip, young artsy crowd to beat a path to your door. Isn’t that what happened at the Empire Diner in West Chelsea (before anyone thought to call it West Chelsea)? It’s happening again, in Williamsburg this time – at Diner, Miss Williamsburg Diner, and Relish, all of them within a few blocks of one another. Of course, this being Williamsburg, and two decades later and a new century and all, the diners are more decrepit, the food’s even better, the chefs have impressive pedigrees, the music’s cooler, and the crowd is hipper. The clothes they wear, though, look suspiciously familiar. Isn’t that my old Starsky and Hutch T-shirt our waitress is wearing?
The one-month old Relish (225 wythe avenue; 718-963-4546) is the shiny new kid on the block. And compared with the other restored diners nearby, rescued from much worse states of disrepair, it seems like a rare find, like a vintage sedan whose previous owner was a little old lady who only drove it on Sundays. Relish is a big, classic fifties model, built to last with acres of stainless steel and stylish curved glass windows at the corners. When owner Sandy Stillman spotted it five years ago, it was love at first sight. The feeling wasn’t mutual. Stillman spent three years courting the restaurant’s owners, and two more restoring it to its former glory before updating it with sculptural lamps, red-tinted fluorescent panels, and a tantalizingly eclectic range of music. Eclectic is also an apt description of former Home chef Michael Wilson’s elevated-comfort-food menu: Standards like meat loaf, burgers, chicken stew, and potpie are reworked in mostly successful ways. Starters include a chopped vegetable salad with a light, creamy blue-cheese dressing, and cheese fondue (minus the Sterno and forks), a big bowl of deliciously rich melted Fontina with warm toasted cornbread and sautéed mushrooms (both $5.50). It’s hard to resist the first-rate grilled sirloin burger; not so the mushy fries that come with it ($6.50). Grandma’s pot roast, succulent chunks of beef braised with root vegetables, is a perfect winter stew ($11); even fussier entrées like roasted monkfish ($13.50) with a parsnip-artichoke cake and mustard-caper sauce have a hearty, home-cooked feel to them. If there’s a wait for a booth (guaranteed on weekends), you can dine at the long Formica counter with its vintage boomerang pattern.
In their heyday, a lot of diners, like beauty-pageant contestants, were ascribed the prefix “miss” and named for the city in which they resided. In that grand tradition, partners Pilar Rigon and Massimiliano Bartoli came up with the moniker Miss Williamsburg Diner (206 Kent Avenue; 718-963-0802), a Rosie the Riveter name that gives no inkling of the culinary surprises lurking behind the U-Haul-orange-and-gray façade of their rehabbed forties diner up the street from the Domino Sugar plant. With six comfortable booths and a Formica counter, it looks like a diner. With waitresses reciting specials and fast-order cooks in white paper hats working the sizzling grill, it sounds like a diner. But take one whiff – is that garlic? Rosemary? – and you know you’re in an Italian restaurant, one that takes itself very seriously. Rigon and Bartoli, refugees from Il Bagatto and Osteria al Doge, respectively, haven’t opened a restaurant so much as a cottage industry, where they make virtually everything themselves: pastas, smoked salmon, hot chocolate, even croissants.
But if the owners have standards, they also have rules: Don’t ask for ketchup (except at brunch). No grated cheese with seafood entrées. No skim milk, either. That’s not too much to ask in exchange for perfectly al dente spaghetti à la chitarra with fresh-tomato-and-basil sauce ($8.75); olive-oil-enhanced borlotti-bean soup ($5); juicy chicken breasts with goat cheese and marjoram tucked under the skin ($16); and straccetti alla rugantino ($11.50), cheesesteak-thin slivers of beef sautéed in a savory white-wine sauce redolent of rosemary and garlic. Rigon does desserts, and so should you – especially her spectacular chocolate soufflé baked in a ceramic coffee cup ($6).
Just over a year old, Diner (85 Broadway; 718-486-3077) has already become a beacon of Williamsburg cool in the most stylishly understated way. Cabs that once ventured no farther into the outer-borough wilds than Peter Luger now continue down desolate Broadway and come to a tentative stop in front of an inconspicuous, bunkerlike façade as unassuming as Diner’s generic name. The plastic-wrapped menu is beyond reductive, listing pedestrian-sounding selections like “soup” ($4), “burger” ($7), and “spinach” ($3) in a typeface you might remember from pre-word-processor days. Inside, the snug 1927 dining car tilts precipitously toward the East River; the angle is especially pronounced in the back booth, where gravity dares glassware to stay put. Somehow, the disequilibrium contributes to the charm of the place, with its artfully mismatched tiles, table leaves that don’t stay up, and sparkly-vinyl-clad counter stools that don’t stay grounded in the dilapidated mosaic floor. But since the owners apprenticed with Keith McNally, that master of the artfully aged veneer, the run-down-ness is perfectly harmonized with such bistro trappings as wine bottles of water, Stella Artois on tap, and a high mirrored panel for scoping out the crowd.
Chef Caroline Fidanza (formerly of Savoy) supplements staples like moules- frites and goat-cheese salad with impressive daily specials like one night’s antipasto plate ($7.50) of sliced saucisson sec with oil-slicked olives, delicious peasant bread, and fresh ricotta. A succulent pork loin ($12) gets a flavor boost from caramelized cipollines, and tender lamb ragout flecked with orange peel is the perfect textural counterpoint to its accompanying crispy white-bean gratin ($13). Everything’s so good, dessert comes as a shock. Try the lemon-meringue-pie special, as hard and rubbery as a novelty-store gag gift, and you’ll wonder if you’ve become the victim of a practical joke. But at brunch, “hot cereal” ($5) wins us back: a deep crock of hot, creamy polenta drizzled with honey and topped with a spoonful of melting mascarpone. And the “chocolate sandwich” ($4) is a sliced baguette that’s toasted, buttered, and filled with oozing semisweet chocolate. The juice ($2.50) is fresh-squeezed, the espresso ($2) strong, and the omelette of the day ($6.50) stuffed with mushrooms and barley, topped with chive ricotta cheese, and served with two triangles of toasted pizza bianca. Diner currently closes for an hour or two between lunch and dinner but will soon stay open continuously from 11 a.m. on. Don’t expect breakfast anytime soon, though. It’s a night-owl kind of place.