ALMOST A YEAR after the iconic Empire Diner closed its doors, the space was reborn as another cafe, The Highliner. The best part? Not much has changed as far as appearances go, despite the gutting of the joint by owner Charles Milite. The interior still sports retro tin paneling, old-school counter stools and the boxcar diner vibe that helped make its predecessor so popular. The exterior remains almost exactly the same, and even maintains the old Empire signs on the side. One thing Milite did add is a communal table that, at first glance, looks like a bar and service station, though it’s actually a comfortable, full setup, with stools on either side for seating.
Of course, the menu has also changed quite a bit. For one, it offers much less than the Empire’s menu, which listed numerous burger and sandwich choices, a whole slew of breakfast options, and classic diner fare like chicken tenders, quesadillas and meatloaf. The new menu strikes a modern chord and is ambitiously executed by chef Jeremie Tomczak, an Aquavit alum. About half of it shies away from classic diner fare with entrées like scallops and fava beans ($21), squid a la plancha ($10) and the bloody Mary asparagus ($10)—an interesting take on gazpacho, that comes with a shot of Stoli vodka to mix in. The other half keeps true to diner tradition with a decent hamburger ($14), a so-so smoked pork chop ($26), a gooey grilled cheese ($13) and basic breakfast items, including a fried egg sandwich ($10) and biscuits with pork gravy ($15).
Despite the menu’s trendy offerings, as my dining partner so eloquently declared, "The key to any diner is in the meatloaf. If it sucks, the restaurant has failed." On a recent visit, we were able put that theory to the test, since The Highliner has added a classic meatloaf ($17) option. On first bite, my friend deemed the buoyant slice of saucy meat a success. The limpid mashed potatoes failed, however, as they had obviously spent too much time in the food processor and lacked both substance and flavor. I couldn’t find a fault in the light and creamy mac ‘n’ cheese ($11) served piping hot in a soup bowl. The soft noodles were coated in a crisp layer of cheese with downy dollops of tangy goat cheese—and adding a glass of the full-bodied Ala Nera Nero d’Avola ($8) certainly didn’t hurt the meal.
Off their latest menu, I tried the burrata ($11), which was fine but not the best or freshest I have had. The addition of firm, sweet, yellow, green and red Jersey tomatoes helped improve it, along with the olive oil, which sang with a dash of bright orange zest. I much preferred the watermelon salad ($8), also off their latest menu. The cubes of fresh yellow and pink fruit came laced with kalamata olives and chunks of salty feta. Another fun dish to get on a summer evening is their Highliner omelet, which you can make decadent with caviar and crme frache ($16) or keep on the simple side with ham, Swiss and gruyre ($10). Pair it with a Goose Island IPA ($7) and it’s the perfect nighttime breakfast before taking a stroll on the sunset-tinged Highline Park (the diner’s namesake), just a block away.
Should you just want a snack or dessert with a cup of coffee, The Highliner is good for that, too, though you won’t have a weatherworn waitress named Flo constantly refilling your cup with a sassy quip and a tired smile. The service on a recent Tuesday night proved excellent, and even as the tiny, sun-streaked space filled up, the staff stayed right on top of things. The meals might not be the most amazing, but the service, space and attitude of the joint keep it right where it should be—a simple diner in Chelsea.
>> THE HIGHLINER 210 10th Ave. (at 22nd St.), 212-206-6206.
The diner formerly known as Empire: The Highliner.