I grew up in Staten Island, NY. Of the five boroughs of New York City, it is easily the shittiest — between the lack of exciting things to do and the Republicans, I can’t say it’s my favorite place on Earth. But it’s my hometown, and there are some things I do love about it. If Staten Island has anything, it’s an abundance of delicious diners, and so many have left their mark on my heart.
New York City diners are unmatched in my not-so-humble, completely biased opinion. Staten Island diners are among the top tier; they have everything a diner should. Formica tables, vinyl seats where your bare legs stick in the summer, TVs mounted in the corner playing the local news, horrible lighting. Just thinking of them brings an ache to my chest and a hankering for curly fries or a homemade cherry Coke.
As a kid, there were a handful of diners on Staten Island that were part of our regular rotation. There was the King’s Arms, the Colonnade Diner, and one long-gone that no one in my family can remember the name of (I called both of my parents to ask!). As a kid, my usual diner dinner companions were my grandmother, who I called Gram, and her best friend, Ms. Betty. The two of them took me on a host of local adventures when I was in elementary school. We’d go to community theatre shows and have dinner at the diner before. Whenever it was my turn to decide on where we were going to eat, I always chose a diner. It got to the point where they didn’t even ask me anymore; we’d just go to whatever diner was closest.
The exterior of the Colonnade was black with a pink and blue neon sign. Inside, there were lots of windows and reflective surfaces, pink neon lighting, jukeboxes at every table. I liked flipping through the song options, even though I rarely wanted to hear anything specific. But when I did, my Gram or Ms. Betty would hand me a coin, and I would carefully make my selection. It was usually some 80s song, because that’s always been my brand.
The one I couldn’t remember (The Country Club Diner! My dad remembered and called me back) was the fanciest. It had tablecloths, and the waitstaff wore crisp white shirts with black vests.
When I worked in Union Square in my early twenties, I occasionally ran into one of my friends from middle school on the late-night ferry back to the island. On those nights, we almost always ended up at Mike’s Greek Diner for a quick order of potato skins or chicken tenders before going home to crash. Once, a guy I had hooked up with in college wanted to come “hang out” with me, and I took him to the King’s Arms for a milkshake and fries before sending him back to New Jersey with a hug and a thanks for paying that ridiculous toll price.
I went to The King’s Arms the most often. In middle school, that was the place to go to after our shows. There was a pizzeria across the street, Pal Joey’s, that we also went to, and we’d flit back and forth between the two like the obnoxious tweens we were. The boys my friends liked thought it would be funny to roll under the bushes out front to hide, and I stood on one side, judging my friends for liking boys who seemed so immature.
Memories like these always come up when I think of my favorite Staten Island diners. It’s kind of funny how memories work — these are just random glimpses into my time there, but they’re always there. I left Staten Island for the final time five years ago, but I do go back and visit my family and friends who are still there. Last summer, my son, partner and I visited, and it was my partner’s first time really exploring the island. “I want to see the places that you love,” she told me.
I wanted to take her to a favorite Mexican restaurant of mine. It’s inside an old house and, frankly, is way cooler than an old diner. But the restaurant was unexpectedly closed. When I stood on the sidewalk trying to figure out next moves, the giant sign from the King’s Arms stood there like a beacon, calling me home.
“Do you want to go to a diner? They make the best burger and chocolate shake I’ve ever had,” I said. We walked the couple blocks and were greeted by the familiar green booths. Even the menus were the same.
As we sat in the booth pretending to browse the menu, I told my partner about sitting at one of the tables with my Gram and Ms. Betty before seeing a play or for a special occasion. My Gram died when I was 15 — at this point, she’s been gone longer than I had her. But when I see those tables, I can still feel her. She really was one of my favorite people when I was a little kid. The memories I have of her aren’t specific, they’re just feelings and glimpses of places. Looking at those tables remind me of late nights watching It’s Showtime at the Apollo or pushing her around in her wheelchair. The pang is dull, but it’s still there. I hope that when I talk about her, especially in one of our favorite places, my partner can feel her just like I can.
While we eat our burgers and curly fries, I tell her that the King’s Arms is a big part of my life as a writer. When I was working on my first novel, it was where I’d work after the coffee shop closed for the night. As I scarfed down a cheeseburger, I would type with one hand. Because of this, I wrote the diner into my next novel.
This year during our family trip to New York, we brought my son for his first trip to the King’s Arms. Like a little kid, he studied the room around him: the green booths, the tables, the TVs playing the local news, even the plastic cups that looked like glass. When we decided to get breakfast for dinner, he admonished us for not getting hamburgers, even though I’ve told him no one makes better breakfast food than a diner. He marveled at the fact that he got 12 chicken nuggets with his kids meal instead of six, declaring there was no way he could eat them all. When his ice cream sundae came out in a fancy glass, he dove in while trying to answer the questions on Jeopardy!
“You know Bub, I used to come here with my Gram when I was your age,” I said to him, grabbing a mint from the cashier like I did back then.
“No way! Really?” He smiled with his big brown eyes, and I ruffled his hair and nodded.
Waiting for the bus, I looked around at the neighborhood. The King’s Arms added an outdoor patio area during the pandemic. Pal Joey’s across the street is long gone. The Italian speciality store that replaced it is gone, too. I haven’t been to the Colonnade in at least 20 years, and every time I’m in the area, the stores are always different. The Country Club Diner became a Walgreens, and then a Key Food, and now I think it’s a bank. Despite that, whenever I see that corner, it’s what I always think of.
Diners are my default place because I’m a creature of habit. I seek comfort in familiarity. That’s the thing about Staten Island, too: It’s comforting, no matter how much I dislike it. I know that I will see the ghost of the girl I used to be standing on a bus stop, an old friend in a street sign, or my Gram in a green diner booth, smiling at me from her wheelchair.
No matter which diner I go to, I know that the challah french toast is going to be delicious. I know that getting a roast beef club sandwich with curly fries and the aforementioned homemade cherry Coke from my favorite diner in the East Village will fill my stomach and my heart at the same time. But most importantly, I know that no matter how many years I’m away from New York City, no matter how many chocolate chip pancakes I eat in LA, those places will always be there. No matter how much changes, these diners stay the same (even when they’re gone).