May 22, 2017

Chelsea's Empire Diner Gets a Hip New Makeover, Food and Cocktails Included

Stacy Pisone of Cafeteria and chef John DeLucie partnered up to revive Empire Diner and enlisted Nemaworkshop to refresh the space!

by New York Spaces

Empire Diner
Empire Diner; Interior design by Nemaworkshop.

Stacy Pisone of Cafeteria and chef John DeLucie partnered up to revive Empire Diner and enlisted Nemaworkshop to refresh the space!

Empire Diner in Chelsea
Empire Diner.

NYS: What made you decide to partner with John DeLucie and Nemaworkshop to revive Chelsea's Empire Diner? What was special about this place and space?

Co-Owner Stacy Pisone: John Delucie and I have been long time friends and have talked about doing something together for years but wanted to wait until we found the right project. Empire Diner was the perfect fit. I believe firmly in the longevity of a restaurant and Cafeteria has been around for almost 20 years now. John has always admired that staying power and Empire Diner certainly has had that in its day. The building is a landmark and an iconic staple in the New York City dining landscape. Almost anyone who has lived in NYC the last few decades has an Empire dining story to share. Anurag Nema from Nemaworkshop designed Cafeteria and also helped with the expansion and renovation five years ago. So reaching out to him to refresh and reinvigorate Empire Diner seemed right.

Empire Diner
Empire Diner; Interior design by Nemaworkshop.

NYS: What were your thoughts and directives on the approach to reviving the spot?

Stacy Pisone: I loved the building and that it is freestanding, unique, and original. It is so rich with New York City history so I knew I had to give it a refresh. There certainly were some original elements we wanted to preserve and restore but everything new we wanted to be classic in feel. For example, we added a marble bar top and marble octagon floor tiles, as well as white subway wall tiles. Everything feels brighter and lighter but still there is an authenticity that comes through. We knew that everything needed a lot of TLC from structural to finishes and I think we achieved it.

NYS: What were some of your favorite design elements and what do you think they add to the space?

Empire Diner
Empire Diner; Interior design by Nemaworkshop.

Stacy Pisone: One of my favorite design elements is the wood tambour ceiling. Tambour is essentially what was used on old roll top desks. It's very flexible and was perfect for the dining car ceiling. We had it painted a lacquered pearl color with brushed stainless ceiling strips between each panel. This really brightened up the dining car room and makes the ceilings feel a little higher, which was necessary.

The upstairs area, which is now called The Library, has also been a favorite among our diners. We put on a new roof, blew open all the walls, and put in new windows to create a loft-like feel that people enjoy. Also, we are putting in operable windows in the dining car on the ground floor which will create an open, airy environment.

NYS: What was the approach to the design? How did you preserve the diner's roots while revitalizing to fit into the neighborhood today?

Empire Diner
Artichokes at Empire Diner.

Nemaworkshop: We wanted to create a warm and inviting place that held onto its history. We wanted to maintain the elements that made Empire an iconic diner but also to reinterpret those elements to create something new; or better yet, new, but also familiar. The curving shapes of the diner's ceilings are maintained but we added linear wood strips painted a glossy white that emphasized the length of the diner and emphasized how those curves caught the light and created reflections. We used metal accents throughout the space as you would find in a diner but we added matte finishes to soften those accents and make for a more inviting space.

NYS: We love how casual chic the feel is. What materials did you employ to give it a warm, comfortable feel?

Nemaworkshop: We used matte finishes on the metals to soften things up. The linear wood strips on the ceiling also add texture to the otherwise hard and smooth surfaces on the ceiling. That texture is also used on some of the custom furniture, including the banquettes. We took extra care to keep the lighting warm at night but also create an environment that looked great during the day with all of the sun that the strip windows of the diner let in.

Black Bass at Empire Diner
Black Bass at Empire Diner.

NYS: We also love that you included banquettes to reference the old-school idea of a diner. How did you update them for a contemporary look?

Nemaworkshop: For the booths near the bar, we used wood strips to keep them light and airy. We like the horizontality of the strips there. For the upholstered banquettes used in the rest of the space, we used horizontal channel tufting that recalls old style diners but used a matte leather instead of a glossy vinyl. This softens the look of the banquette while maintaining the strong directionality of elements found in diners. We also added texture (natural wood, wood strips) where we could to add some warmth and a more luxurious feel to the space.

NYS: We absolutely love the lighting and seating. Tell us about them!

Empire Diner
Empire Diner.

Nemaworkshop: The chairs reference early modernist designs. The black frame adds a bit of formality when placed on the white marble mosaic floors and the wood seat and back add warmth and casualness at the same time. For the lighting, we focused on keeping an even warm glow throughout the space. At night, warm lights comes from above you and from sconces at eye level to create a sexy, relaxed atmosphere what the neighborhood is today.

NYS: How does the design influence the menu and vice versa?

John DeLucie: If you are serving comfort food, the design should reflex that and be well....comfortable.

NYS: What menu updates can future diners expect to try? How did you keep diner favorites in the mix?

Burger at Empire Diner
Burger at Empire Diner.

John DeLucie: We have Chicken Fried Steak, a Double Patty Burger and Pretzel Fried Chicken. We also have a Steamed Black Bass, Beef Carpaccio and a Smoked Trout Caesar salad. The high and the low if you will.

NYS: Your cocktails look absolutely delicious and refreshing. Tell us about some of mixologist Jenny Castillo's creations?

John DeLucie: Our Head Mixologist, Jenny Castillo, offers a twist on classic cocktails using seasonal, fresh and clean ingredients. Favorites include "The High Line Honey" which is infused with sage honey, lemon, and bee pollen, and the "Matcha Mule" which combines matcha with notes of mint, lime and ginger.

Wedge Salad at Empire Diner
Wedge Salad at Empire Diner.

NYS: What are some of your favorite menu items?

John DeLucie: I love the Strachatella, Beef Carpaccio, Crispy Artichokes, and the Wedge Salad for starters. For mains I love the Sourdough Pretzel Fried Chicken, the Berkshire Pork Chop pork and the Chicken Fried Steak. For dessert, nothing beats the Coconut Cake or Sundae.

Smores Cake at Empire Diner.
Smores Cake at Empire Diner.

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