An Illustrated Ode to the New York Diner Menu
They're not just lists of dishes: menus are works of art
I began to see diner menus as objects of art when it occurred to me how unnecessary they are in the first place. Who doesn't know what to expect between the laminated covers of a classic diner menu? The cantaloupe with cottage cheese will inevitably appear in some sort of “diet delights” section, the club sandwich is available with your choice of sides, the spaghetti and meatballs that no one ever orders is always close to the end. On a recent breakfast trip to the Sunflower Diner on 26th Street and 3rd Avenue, I overheard an elderly gentleman remark delightedly to his tablemates, "The diner is the place where they have 1,000 different items on the menu. The offerings at other places are skimpy by comparison."
And the menus themselves at other places are skimpy by comparison. At other restaurants in the city, menus are often of the single page, double-sided variety. Maybe there’s a separate sheet for drinks, or a folder with the wine list. But the beauty of diner menus is in their comprehensiveness – the many ways you can get toast, eggs, pancakes, and bacon, the photos that never match the dish that arrives at the table, the funny nicknames for some of the meals. To see how different diners choose to display the familiar choices from their breakfast sections, I decided to set out and try to recreate some favorites from spots across the city.
Joe Junior Restaurant, 167 3rd Avenue
A cheerful good morning greeting kicks off the first page of this legendary diner's menu. Their pastel, vaguely '80s graphics and choice of supple fonts made this one incredibly pleasing to draw. It took all of my self control not to continue to scribbling in my sketchbook long after I'd completed my version of the breakfast page—not only is the interior of Joe Jr.'s like a trip back in time, but the exterior signage is a must see. If you find yourself in the area, plan a stop to check out the yellow cartoon character licking his chops beside a faded hamburger.
Cup & Saucer, 89 Canal Street
You can’t always tell a good diner menu from its sign. At the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, the Cup & Saucer's vintage sign of slim, simple black letters against a white background is inviting (especially to someone who has just completed a vigorous bike ride over the river), and yet their menu is a humdrum, tri -fold printed job. Luckily, they have a back lit board menu above the cash register listing the breakfast specials that caught my eye.
New Wave Cafe, 2210 Broadway
There's nothing "new wave" about the menu from the Upper West Side's New Wave cafe, but I was excited to see two posters in their window prominently featuring images of the breakfast selections. Best diner menu feature: the earnest portrait of a box of Raisin Bran and the subsequent list of cereals.
Orion Diner & Grill, 395 2nd Avenue
The Orion Diner has many different menus in different styles facing outward from their windows on the corner of 2nd Avenue. It's difficult to discern exactly which version will be handed to you once you walk in (it’s an odd kind of roulette), but it's safe to say this bold yellow page of specials is the one I'd prefer.
The Star on 18th, 128 10th Avenue
The Star on 18th in Chelsea bills itself as a "diner cafe," but their menu is as classic as it gets. The most colorful of the batch I investigated, it features a big, unappetizing hunk of meat as the center graphic. Luckily, the menu is redeemed in my eyes for considering its fresh orange juice "super special."