Like the town’s general store from 1919 and schoolhouse from 1850, the Oakhurst Diner in Millerton, N.Y., is a living time capsule.
Housed in the original 1950s Silk City dining car, it screams classic diner: crimped stainless-steel facade, Formica counter with stools, pink-and-blue neon sign, specials scrawled on chalkboards. But the nods to midcentury nostalgia mostly end there.
Sure, you can get two eggs and a cup of Joe here. But you could also order a bahn mi sandwich, Bulletproof coffee, CBD-infused Kombucha, artisanal hot sauce, a macrobiotic bowl with seaweed and brown rice, kimchi and a $16 burger made from “grass-fed and grass-finished” beef sourced from Herondale Farm, about 14 miles up the road.
Day trippers and residents in this quaint village, about two hours north of New York City in the Hudson Valley, can’t seem to get enough. At lunchtime on a recent Friday, every booth was filled with 40-something guys in bicycle Lycra, young friends from Brooklyn, local business owners in polo shirts and khakis, and families renting nearby Airbnbs. And despite the brutal heat, the line at the door was six deep.
“It’s the centerpiece of the town,” said Paul Harney, one of Oakhurst’s owners. “You see people in here from overseas. It’s a daily event that someone takes a picture.”
Welcome to the hipsterfied diner. Same look and vibe as the classic steel original, but the food has been upgraded to reflect current tastes.
The chef slinging hash may have cooked with Noma alumni in Copenhagen. The woman in a booth snapping photos of the food on her table may be a social media influencer. The owner may be a marketing executive from Manhattan fulfilling a childhood dream.
Examples of these fashionable hash houses dot the Northeast, the epicenter of diner culture. In addition to the Oakhurst, there is the one-month-old Silver Lining Diner in East Hampton, N.Y.; the Rosebud in Somerville, Mass.; the West Taghkanic Diner in West Taghkanic, N.Y., and Grazin’ Hudson in Hudson, N.Y.
Perhaps the most chronicled of the new-old-school variety is the Phoenicia Diner in the Catskills, which serves a seasonal menu sourced from local farms and attracts a cosmopolitan clientele who have flooded Instagram with photos of its retro interior. It’s the sort of place where you may see a local police officer eating at the counter, or the model Helena Christensen downing a milkshake.
One reason these revamped diners have prospered in upstate New York may be the existence of what Robert Sietsema, a food writer for the website Eater, called the “hickster” — that is, “hipsters who move upstate” or visit from the city on weekends.
“Like hipsters, hicksters require restaurants, but mostly what they found up there were diners, pizzerias, and roadside taverns,” Mr. Sietsema wrote.
And so was born the greasy spoon serving avocado toast and deconstructed chicken potpie.
Same Space, Different Menu
This revival could not have come at a better time for the American roadside diner. Many have closed in recent decades, the victim of national chains, changing food tastes, rising real estate prices and the general decline in mom-and-pop restaurants.
The ones that remain are rarely known for good food or cool crowds. The menu may offer 14 pages of turkey clubs, omelets and burger toppings, but the ingredients usually arrived on freezer trucks.
Still, there is something super-American about diners, and the nostalgia for them is palpable in popular culture. Think of all the movies and TV shows that feature stainless-steel diners as meet-up spots, including “Baby Driver,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Pulp Fiction” and, of course, “Diner.”
Richard J.S. Gutman, the author of “American Diner Then and Now,” which charts the history of diners, said that seeing a diner in a movie, even in a quick establishing shot, triggers all sorts of feelings and associations.
“You feel at home in the diner whether you’ve been there dozens of times or it’s your first time,” Mr. Gutman said. “There’s a buzz inside. There’s a kind of energy when you’re sitting stool to stool, cheek by jowl, asking for the ketchup.”
That sense of home is what drove M.T. Carney, 49, a founder of Plan A, an advertising holding company in New York, to open the Silver Lining Diner in Southhampton, N.Y., this summer with her husband, Richard Silver.
“That feeling, that place you’d go with your grandpa or your auntie, where is that anymore?” said Ms. Carney, who grew up in Scotland. “There’s something so democratic about diners. They’re part of the community. I think that’s what people are craving.”
Formerly the Princess Diner, the large Art Deco white-and-chrome diner dates back to 1965 and sits near the start of Montauk Highway, the main artery of the Hamptons. In more recent years, the diner was neglected and in disrepair, and in 2018, the former owner was sentenced to six months in jail for failing to pay his employees and the restaurant closed.
Ms. Carney took over the space, brightened the interior and installed cheery yellow booths. For the menu, she teamed up with Eric Miller, the chef at another Hamptons restaurant she owned, Bay Kitchen Bar, to offer elevated diner fare.
The burger, for example, is made with organic beef from Snake River Farms in Idaho, the bun comes from the Blue Duck Bakery down the road, and the cheese and greens are all from local farms. Instead of prepackaged jelly, Mr. Miller whipped up strawberry-rhubarb jam when those crops were in season.
“We wanted this place to feel retro a little bit, but not like Epcot Center,” Ms. Carney said. “Like retro in the emotional sense of the word, you know, that it feels like coming home, it feels comfortable.”
Likewise, the West Taghkanic Diner was a homecoming for Kristopher Schram, who spent a decade cooking in Copenhagen, including at Relae, a Michelin-starred restaurant opened by Christian Puglisi, a former chef at Noma. Mr. Schram then returned to the Hudson Valley, where he grew up, and opened the diner four months ago.
“These days, you’re fighting with everyone to make your restaurant stand out,” Mr. Schram, 36, said. “People walk through the door of this diner and they’re already snapping pictures, or their mood has changed because they’re in a space where they feel so comfortable.”
Built in 1953, the West Taghkanic Diner was still open when Mr. Schram bought it, but the dining room needed a deep clean, the original pie refrigerators were on the fritz, the urinal was broken, and the kitchen was caked in grease, he said.
While Mr. Schram kept the diner’s name and interior intact, the menu got overhauled. He sources the brisket for his Reuben sandwich from Northwind Farms in nearby Tivoli, N.Y., and brines the meat for nine days before cooking it for 12 hours in a smoker he set up outside the diner, which is along Route 82, just off the Hudson/Ancram exit of the Taconic Parkway.
The tricky thing, he said, is balancing people’s expectations of what a diner is with the revamped version, and appealing to all crowds.
“I wanted to keep prices as low as I could so I didn’t draw a divide between locals and people outside,” Mr. Schram said, noting that his Reuben is $16 instead of, say, $10. “I make sure sandwiches are big, the sides are big, and you will feel satisfied.”
Indeed, it’s possible to tweak the conventions of a diner so drastically that you’re no longer a diner.
Justin Panzer, 46, an owner of the Oakhurst, was formerly a line cook at Lutèce, the onetime grande dame of French cuisine in New York (it closed in 2004). At first, he said, his aspirations for the diner were “way too ambitious.”
He insisted the fries be hand-cut, and hired someone to sit in the basement all day slicing potatoes. An early chef was a Nepalese man who introduced chicken biryani and curries to Millerton, an agricultural village of 900.
But as Mr. Panzer and the restaurant’s manager, Clare Caramanica, quickly discovered, the locals weren’t having it.
“Our toast was a rosemary toast,” Ms. Caramanica said. “Some people loved it and some people were, like, ‘Can I just have toast?’”
They have since switched to Eli Zabar bread, a more widely appealing brand. “We found the balance,” she said.