Haute Diners

August 9, 2006
David Bowman
Creative chefs across the country are reinterpreting the greasy spoon. Say good-bye to grits and hello to quinoa.

Watertown, Mass.

Back in 2000, restaurant vet Don Levy was planning to open a gourmet hot dog stand in an old gas station when he heard about a 1947 diner near his home in the Boston suburbs. He sweet-talked the owners into selling, then spent two months refurbishing the 86-seat Deluxe Town Diner. "We wanted to bring the building back to its roots, to the '40s, which was a plain period of time," Levy says, "and not the '50s with its kitschy elements." Wood paneling was stripped from the teal-tiled walls, the fuchsia booths were painted black, a curved aluminum ceiling was installed, and the original marble countertop was brought up from the basement. Meat loaf ($7) and mac and cheese ($6) share space on the menu with cod cake Florentine ($9), tofu stir-fry with quinoa ($9), and a Kobe beef burger ($11). But Levy's most successful venture is the weekend brunch, an all-day affair that has folks lining up, rain or shine, for 30 minutes. The flapjacks, which come in eight varieties and are eight inches wide, have even been featured on the Food Network. 627 Mt. Auburn St., 617/926-8400, deluxetowndiner.com. --Kristine Brabson

Minneapolis, Minn.

The more than 1,000 bulbs on the Town Talk Diner marquee are once again lighting a stretch of the Longfellow neighborhood. The 15-seat counter is as busy as it was back in the '40s, when it was shoulder-to-shoulder with factory workers. But Town Talk has expanded, adding 80 seats, and now hipsters and old-school patrons snack on cheese curds fried in a caper-scallion batter ($6) or "frickles"--tempura pickle rounds with a mustard-dill dipping sauce ($5). A trio of owners is responsible for this latest incarnation: chef David Vlach, who trained at Napa Valley's French Laundry, and managing partners Tim Niver (formerly of Minneapolis's Aquavit) and Aaron Johnson (of Le Méridien hotel downtown). Little restoration was done--the tin ceilings, steel walls, and swivel stools were too classic to remove. "It's a diner, tweaked up," says Niver. "At one table, someone might order the halibut, another a hot dog. And hey, we'll still serve you from our left hand and clear with our right." 2707 1/2 E. Lake St., 612/722-1312, towntalkdiner.com. --Megan Kaplan

Brooklyn, N. Y.

Don't be fooled by the chic waitstaff and the gleaming cappuccino machine at Relish--this stainless-steel dining car was built in 1952 in New Jersey. The diner was spotted in 1995 by writer and designer Sandy Stillman. He spent three years convincing the owners to sell and then two more turning it into a retro restaurant that looks so good it's often used for TV and film shoots. Sleek vinyl booths, a white Formica bar, and blinds that filter the sunlight make Relish an unconventionally romantic spot. The menu, created by former Union Square Café chef Lou Silver, is ambitious, with entrées like asparagus-speared grilled shrimp ($10) and pan-roasted blue snapper ($21). In summer, tables are set up in the sprawling garden. It may lack that diner aesthetic, but it's the perfect place to sip a Metropolitan martini. 225 Wythe Ave., 718/963-4546, relish.com. --Shana Liebman

Philadelphia, Pa.

Stephen Starr was promoting concerts, opening nightclubs, and hosting a local radio talk show when, in 1995, he began making late-night drives past a sleepy diner on a street corner in Philadelphia's Old City. Starr bought the place and renovated the interior, retrofitting it with vinyl-padded walls, booths as deep as the bench seat of an El Dorado, and lights that resemble giant, skewered olives. When the Continental Restaurant and Martini Bar opened in 1995, it was an instant A-list hangout. Ten years later, it still attracts the random Sixer, Phillie, or celeb in town for a film shoot. Shoestring fries drizzled with Chinese mustard ($6) and a cheesesteak egg roll ($12.75) are just two of the almost 40 global tapas on the menu. The Continental transformed the neighborhood--it now anchors a buzzing nightlife district--and Starr's career. He has since opened a succession of high-concept restaurants, including Buddakan, Morimoto, and the Continental Midtown. 138 Market St., 215/923-6069, continentalmartinibar.com. --Caroline Tiger

Dining cars aren't the only American classics getting a makeover. Spend the night in a refurbished Airstream trailer at one of these hotels.

  • Lazy Meadow Mt. Tremper, N.Y., lazymeadow.com, from $150
  • The Shady Dell Bisbee, Ariz., theshadydell.com, from $70
  • Starlux Hotel Wildwood, N.J., thestarlux.com, from $74
  • Ten Thousand Waves (pictured) Santa Fe, N.M., tenthousandwaves.com, from $99
  • Plan Your Next Getaway
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    On Saturday evenings, all of Istanbul seems to stroll along Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian avenue in the Beyoglu district. Couples, packs of young men, and extended families share the sidewalks with lottery ticket vendors, men roasting corncobs on street carts, and café singers belting pop tunes. Beyoglu is on the European side of the Bosporus, across the Golden Horn inlet from Topkapi Palace and the Aya Sofya. Istiklal Caddesi, its main artery, runs along the ridge of a huge hill, so that turning down any side street means getting an amazing view of the city. The area's art nouveau buildings, once home to apartments and embassies, now house upscale boutiques, galleries, and restaurants. It wasn't always this way. Beyoglu, much like Turkey as a whole, has undergone a radical transition in the last decade. "When I opened NuTeras in 2001, the neighborhood was filthy," says chef Mehmet Gürs, referring to the first of his restaurants in his NuPera complex--now several clubs and restaurants stacked in a 200-year-old building. "Men pulled knives on me when I was on my motorcycle. People were afraid to come in groups of two, so they came in groups of four." As its name implies, NuTeras is on the roof, overlooking the Golden Horn and Süleymaniye Camii, one of Istanbul's most beautiful mosques. After dinner, well-dressed throngs arrive for drinks, DJs, and views. NuTeras now has a lot of company. Inspired by Gürs's success, other entrepreneurs have launched a slew of bars in the vicinity. Gürs himself owns two more restaurants nearby, including Mikla, which opened last winter on the roof of the trendy Marmara Pera hotel. Sleek cafés line the crooked alleyways off Istiklal; in summer, tables are set up right on the street. Weekends are scenes of sophisticated chaos--the jumble of cultures only makes things more interesting. "Istanbul is a mix of Asian, European, and Ottoman influences," says Seyhan Özdemir, architect of the design firm Autoban. "There are no real Turkish people here. We all come from different places and together make a new culture." Autoban has done the interiors of several Istanbul restaurants, including the Beyoglu branch of The House Café. It's filled with mismatched furniture that mixes styles and scale, like an Ottoman-inspired divan with a frame of Finnish plywood. Autoban's aesthetic permeates all the new businesses in the neighborhood. Around the corner, a tiny Italian restaurant named Otto becomes a rock and electro dance scene late at night, where the DJ looks like Che Guevara and mojitos are the house specialty. Yet Beyoglu's new nightspots haven't displaced their neighbors, traditional Turkish restaurants and coffeehouses; they've just amplified the variety of the area. The rooftop restaurant and lounge called 360 Istanbul is opposite an alley lined with narghile (water pipe) cafés. To get to the top of the building, one must step into a creaky elevator and zip past a contemporary art gallery. The old ways are still around--and in fact, the young, chic crowd digs them now and then. Several meyhanes (serving tapas-like dishes) on nearby Sofyali Sokak are institutions. At Refik, which has been in business for more than 50 years, families and friends gather at tables and drink aniseed liqueur raki. Waiters hold immense trays laden with examples of all the mezes, or appetizers, that are on the menu. Everyone chooses by pointing--stuffed grape leaves, chickpea salad, roasted eggplant puree. On another narrow street, a traditional Turkish clarinetist, Hüsnü Senlendirici, plays to a full house at Babylon. Guys wearing Lacoste shirts sway while their girlfriends in designer jeans twirl their wrists belly-dancer style. The club books musicians five nights a week, from Afro-Cuban jazz to alternative rock to electronica. "People come even if they don't know who's playing," says Sarp Dakni of Pozitif Group, the music industry company behind the club. Another Turkish clarinetist, Selim Sesler, can be found Tuesday nights at the rooftop bar Araf. A multinational crowd jams into the small space, drinking, smoking, and dancing like mad in front of large windows overlooking Istanbul's skyline. At 2 A.M. the dance floor is still packed and will be for a while. Locals know how good they have it. "Istanbul is very young and energetic," says one habitué when asked about the nightlife. "Everything we do is watched."   360 Istanbul Istiklal Caddesi 311, 011-90/212-251-1042   Araf Balo Sokak 32, 011-90/212-244-8301   Babylon Sehbender Sokak 3, 011-90/212-292-7368   The House Café Gecidi Ishani 9/1 Sümbül Sokak, 011-90/212-245-9515   Otto Sehbender Sokak 5, 011-90/212-292-7015   Refik Sofyali Sokak 10, 011-90/212-245-7879   Mikla Marmara Pera Hotel, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 167/185, 011-90/212-293-5656   NuTeras Mesrutiyet Caddesi 149/6, 011-90/212-245-6070