The Dish On Diners

The preacher was break-dancing. "Save Jones Diner!... Save Jones Diner!" We chanted along, some imitating his break-dance moves, all of us packed cheek to cheek into a tiny, subway-car-sized eatery in lower Manhattan. The Rev. Billy is no priest, but then I'm no social activist, either. Yet here we are, he a performance artist who dresses up like Father, the rest of us friends of the 'hood, rallying to rescue a 64-year-old diner from urban extinction. George W. Bush wouldn't know an evil axis until he's met Cafeteria, a hipster restaurant armed with pricey attorneys and a celebrity publicist best known for nearly running down a Hamptons nightclub bouncer after allegedly calling him "white trash." Its owners plan to knock down Jones Diner and erect a three-story behemoth in its place.

This being New York, the neighbors are outraged. "The Jones Diner is the soul of the neighborhood," a little old lady whispers to me. She's sitting on one of those twirly stools at the counter. She and I are improbable allies in yet another of those battles being waged with increasing fervor throughout the city as upscale restaurants and nightclubs (not to mention chains like Starbucks and the Gap) displace the old mom-and-pop shops that have always defined gritty and rough-edged New York.

Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, a bleached-blond anticonsumerism advocate who looks more like a game-show host, has organized many of the protests. He calls them "interventions"--a term normally reserved for saving loved ones from drug ODs. Now he's leaping to save the Jones Diner. A speck of a restaurant, it has sat on the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones Street since the Great Depression, reflecting the great tides that built New York. George is the twinkly-eyed, ham-handed Greek short-order-cook-proprietor whose last name hardly anybody knows. "The Jews" opened the diner in 1938, he tells me. They sold it to "the Italians" in the '50s, who sold it to him and his partner, the Greeks, in 1974. George remembers how factory workers would line up for coffee at 5 a.m. back then. After came artists including Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, looking pretty much like the crack dealers and just as hard up. In the '90s Wall Streeters and dot-comers took over.

Beset by luxury condos, spas and restaurants that consider a forkful of seaweed to be an entree, the Jones Diner is one of the last holdouts in Manhattan where you can get a breakfast special--two scrambled eggs, toast, hash browns, orange juice and coffee--for $3. The bargains are killing them, they say. "Everyone eats here, except the rich," sniffs George's partner, Alex.

And so the drama unfolds. Rev. Billy and his gang initially win a partial victory. He'd distributed save Jones diner fliers inviting friends to a community-board meeting, where Cafeteria applied for permission to build its 5,500-square-foot monolith, sized to defray the $25,000 monthly rent on the site. (Jones Diner, which sits on about one seventh of the plot, pays $1,400.) In one corner, the restaurateurs: young, fit, black-clad, flanked by a besuited stone-face of an attorney. In the other, George in his stained white kitchen apron, and Alex, sportif in his Yankees T shirt with a gold cross necklace the size of a doughnut. Cafeteria's lawyer claims the diner's lease is expiring and it is legal to tear the place down. The Friends jeer at them, rising to tell the presiding city authorities: "Not very many places still serve grits for breakfast," and "Don't let this juggernaut tear down our diner." Afterward, they congratulate each other on their Capra-esque performances. An elderly lady with no lower teeth tells Alex admiringly: "You sounded just like Jimmy Stewart in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'."

And lo, the board votes against Cafeteria. Its members will forward their recommendation to an appropriate government panel, which will probably approve Cafeteria's plans regardless. You see, in New York, people who wear black always win. Will I be sad? To be honest, no. The Cafeteria in Chelsea serves a mean eggs Benedict. And as an architect friend says, "New York is all about tearing things down and building anew." Spoken like a true Yuppie. Next time we go to the Jones Diner, I'll ask George to serve the architect a used tea bag. I'm sure there's one under the counter somewhere.