On Friday, December 19th, Brooklyn’s El Greco Diner on Emmons Avenue closed after 40 years. If you live in New York City, and especially in Brooklyn, this news may very well sadden you. If you live elsewhere, listen up anyway; this is a story about the passing of a neighborhood favorite, and about how real estate is king.
The El Greco was a mainstay of Sheepshead Bay, a popular southern Brooklyn area. The restaurant, open at all hours, was popular for its wide variety of food, for having a large parking lot (something not found everywhere in NYC), for being near bus and subway train lines, and for being across the street from a pretty bay and a park.
However, I did not get to eat inside because by the time I showed up, the staff was holding their private farewell party. Alas, no last cup of decaf for me. I took a few photos and asked for a menu to hold onto as a keepsake, which I was given by a front-desk guy.
The El Greco was one of many diners in Brooklyn, but several have closed up in recent years. Brooklyn residents mourn the passing of the Tiffany Diner in Bay Ridge; the Kings Plaza Diner near the big shopping mall; the Caravelle in Midwood; and many others. It seems more than the closing of an eatery, but a slap at a way of life, of casual dining at reasonable prices in an unpretentious setting. The El Greco was frequented by people young and old, working class and better off, who wanted basic dishes as well as more particular ones, including ethnic fare (Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and such). For meals, snacks, drinks, birthday and retirement parties, the El Greco was a pleasant setting.
Okay, sometimes the service dragged. The vanilla egg cream was weak, in my opinion. The bathrooms could be messy. But we liked to go there and have eggs, vegetable souvlaki, pasta, Greek salads. I used to run into some of my students there, such as Chris P. who told me that he and his brothers loved to come there all the time. The last time I ate at El Greco I ran into a friend’s dad and we talked shop.
But the El Greco was one of several Brooklyn businesses (as well as NYC businesses) that suffered extensive damage as a result of Hurricane Sandy. It was closed for several months after the super-storm. We were surprised and pleased when it reopened in mid-2013.
However, the owners were offered a tidy sum for the land and they sold the property. It seems that the diner will be razed and housing will be erected here. This is not the only spot where a restaurant has closed and new high-rise housing is plopped down in its place.
The El Greco was not part of a chain restaurant. The El Greco tried to tailor itself to many different customers. It was far from perfect but it was the type of place where many people could feel comfortable. It had a cutesy tie-in to the artist El Greco, with its painter’s palette and brushes logo. Each Thanksgiving the staff hosted and fed a few hundred needy people for free, as a humanitarian gesture.
Brooklyn, NY, is not the only place where restaurants close. I’m well aware that the restaurant business is tough and fickle. But when a restaurant lasts for a few decades, it makes an impression on its community at large. People can eat elsewhere or cook at home and eat. But now this restaurant has closed, workers have lost their jobs, and a chapter closes.