Why So Many Restaurants Want to Be a Luncheonette Right Now
Nearing its third year, Love, Nelly, a Brooklyn empanadas spot, relaunched in January 2023 as Butter & Scotch Luncheonette. The rebrand is a revival of sorts, of the Crown Heights boozy bakery, Butter & Scotch, co-owner Keavy Landreth lost to the pandemic, now in a new space with red vinyl seating. (Love, Nelly lives on as a wholesale business). By turning Butter & Scotch into a luncheonette, Landreth says the once-struggling storefront on Ocean Hill’s Rockaway Avenue is seeing new light.
While the trend has seen success in New York before, COVID has made this business model uniquely appealing. The pandemic leveled the hospitality industry with mom-and-pops like luncheonettes especially vulnerable. The combined financial and emotional stressors have caused customers and operators alike to seek out nostalgia, comfort foods, and affordability, as well as pared-down presentations as a cost-saving measure in the face of skyrocketing ingredient and rent prices. In part, they may be appealing simply because workers don’t have to clock out late at night if they close the kitchen in the afternoon; others are interested in leaving fine dining behind for something they see as more genuine.
Since 2020, there has been a critical mass of luncheonette openings — or at least new ones calling themselves that — with Old John’s, Baby Blues Luncheonette, Agi’s Counter, and S&P. Several are forthcoming, like a French American restaurant, Revelie Luncheonette, from Soho institution Raoul’s; Salty Lunch Lady’s Little Luncheonette, from a Mission Chinese alum; and Little Grenjai, a Thai American pop-up making a permanent home.
“I just want to create somewhere fun where people can eat sandwiches,” says Dria Atencio, aka Salty Lunch Lady, “of course also bringing in my years in restaurants to make things more interesting and high-quality ingredients.” For her, that means mortadella sandwiches and coconut-confetti cake, in presentations that are “inviting and not too fancy.”
Luncheonettes once had a distinct definition from diners, which are also having a resurgence, as the New York Times reported. Join the crowd — perhaps for the first time in the building’s history since 1945 — lining up at the relaunched Three Decker. (In the case of the diner revival, MeMe’s Diner led the trend in 2017, followed by Golden Diner in 2019, and Thai Diner in 2020). Later this year, Fat Rabbit Diner will open in Fort Greene, in the former home of Mega Bites, another pandemic casualty.
Historically, the word luncheonette refers to a small place that has a counter, often located in five-and-dime stores and soda fountains. They had abbreviated menus for fast daytime service at affordable prices. And the customers were often women, since they were adjacent to shopping.
“Women were considered women of ill repute if they went into restaurants without a male companion,” said Linda Pelaccio, board member of the Culinary Historians of New York, and host of a Taste of the Past podcast. “What we saw happening around the 1900s, was the luncheonette became a safe place for women joining the workforce in New York City,” she says to Eater. Race and gender have historically played a bigger role in luncheonettes than diners: A key part of the Civil Rights movement, luncheonettes were the site for sit-in demonstrations at Woolworth’s across the country.
Today, the difference between luncheonettes and diners has become jumbled and interchangeable; new places using luncheonette in their branding might stay open late and serve alcohol, too. “I think language travels, evolves, and it becomes more inclusive,” agrees Pelaccio, adding that she is not a stickler about labeling.
But at their core, “luncheonettes are still community spaces,” says Rolando Pujol, behind the newsletter the Retrologist, an archive of sorts, for these businesses, new and old. He points to design elements, such as a new wave of handpainted signmakers, who devote themselves to preserving the feel. Baby Blues, with its vintage taxi cab salt-and-pepper shakers, and old VHS tapes, also has a window sign hand-done by Van Zee Sign Co., behind signage of dozens of NYC spots. “It’s really encouraging to see people not just wax poetic about what was, but actually doing something about it,” says Pujol.
The food is also changing — more experimental, infusing owners’ personal heritages, and along the way redefining what Americana looks like in New York for the long run. For example, when Little Grenjai opens in Bed-Stuy this May, owners Sutathip Aiemsaard and Trevor Lombaer, will offer dishes like Chiang Mai dogs, breakfast congee, and smash burgers, a nod to their respective upbringings in Thailand and Chicagoland. Meanwhile, luncheonette staples like egg creams are also evolving.
Not all of these evocative places have worked out. Ham and Sohla El-Waylly opened Hail Mary in Greenpoint in 2016, a precursor to the current trend; they put a play on steak and eggs, remixed with uni on the menu. “People didn’t get it,” says Ham El-Waylly of the dish that they quickly took off. “And they were right.” By that he means, they learned the best versions of these throwback restaurants leave behind any cheffed-up pretension. Had it opened at a time when there’s “more of an understanding of what modern diners can look like,” he believes Hail Mary, or a version of it, would have found more success.
Time has a way with things. In a time like COVID, nostalgia may be the only way through. “We could not sell them,” says Landreth of “magic buns” — croissant dough shaped like cinnamon buns with five spice and orange zest — which lived at the original Butter & Scotch, before its closure. “But gosh, we put them on the [Butter & Scotch Luncheonette] menu, and they’re flying off the shelves.”