20 Years Ago in Dan’s Papers: June 20, 1992

What is it about famous people that would make their children want to open nostalgic 1950s diners?  Since the mid-1960s there has not been a classic old 1950s diner in these parts.  Now, this spring, there are two, one of them already open in Amagansett, the other before the planning board in Southampton.  And both of them have sprung from the imaginations of the children of famous people.

The one in Amagansett is from the mind of Toni Ross, the daughter of Steve Ross. Steve Ross is the President of Time Warner, the entertainment conglomerate, and has an oceanfront mansion in East Hampton.  He is currently in residence full time here, recovering from an illness, and when he recently engineered the replacement of Nicholas Nicholas as his co-CEO to find someone more to his liking, it ran as a front-page story in the New York Times. Toni Ross, his daughter, is the co-owner of Nick and Toni’s Restaurant on North Main Street in East Hampton. It’s been in business for four years.  And now they’ve opened this absolutely classic fifties diner in Amagansett called the Honest Diner. It’s been open about a week and it has been packed.

The fate of the proposed diner in Southampton Town is still up in the air, but from the plans presented to the planning board and from the conversations we have had with Alexis Stewart, it will be very much in keeping with the nostalgic, modern almost art-deco quality that made the fifties diners what they were.

And Alexis Stewart is the daughter of Martha Stewart, the well know Manhattan tastemaker whose ideas on furnishings, food, fabrics and design are so interesting and well known that there is actually a magazine, extremely successful, with her own name on the front. It is Martha Stewart Magazine.

Martha Stewart has bought the former Lee Eastman Estate in Sagaponack, (Mr. Eastman was the father of Paul McCartney’s wife Linda) and is throwing a benefit party at her home this Saturday night but more about that later.

So what is it about nostalgic diners and children of celebrities?

Not long ago I spoke to someone who bought and sold old classic American automobiles.  And he explained to me how the value of these vehicles goes up or down, depending upon the year and the vintage.

“People fondly remember how things were when they were in their teens and twenties.  The agonies of being that age have vanished.  They remember the good times.  And so with classic cars, anyway, the demand for them and therefore the value of them tends to increase when the men who drove them get into their forties, fifties and sixties.  These men are in their peak earning years and can afford to pay top dollar. And so your cars that are about thirty-five years old are the priciest.  The men simply love to drive around in something they owned in their youth. When you get a car that is older than that, the prices are actually less.”

So here is my theory.  Mom and pop are all excited about the fifties.  Kids who are in their late teens or early twenties pick up on this excitement. The result is Fifties Diners, an expensive proposition to bankroll, run by twenty-five year olds who are the children of the well to do and well known.

I can even trace this phenomenon in my own personal life, though of course on a more modest level.  I am 52. Some of the best times of my life were had in the back seat or front seat of 1950s automobiles, specifically at the old Hamptons Drive-In in Bridgehampton which used to be on the site of the current Bridgehampton Commons Shopping Center.  I remember sneaking friends into the Drive-In in the trunk.  I remember one particular night when my friend Paul and I had two blind dates, the four of us sized one another up and when we got to the Drive-In Paul and I went out for popcorn and when we got back he and I without a word simply got in next to the girl of the other.  As I recall, his half of the switch worked out, mine didn’t.

And there is more.  My teenage children, of their own accord, purchased huge old American automobiles, one from 1964 and the other from 1970.  They have them today and I am in favor of it.  They were kind of beat up so they didn’t cost much, they are big and therefore, perhaps, safer, and gas costs a lot so they don’t use them as much.  (A plus from a parent’s point of view.)

Furthermore, my 18-year-old son last week organized a Drive-In in the parking lot of our house. He took a big TV out, put it on a table by the garage and hooked it up with an extension cord. Then he got a VCR, an old movie, and we all sat in the old cars and watched. My 20-year-old daughter served popcorn through the car windows. The only thing missing was the roller skates.

Ah, heaven.

To prove my point further, understand that the Honest Diner might have come in the seventies or eighties. It was just sitting there, waiting to be thought of. Nobody did.

You see, the Honest Diner actually WAS a Fifties diner. Due to a fluke of circumstance, when it went out of business, it was not torn down but instead virtually frozen in time, just waiting for the likes of Toni Ross to come along.

It is quite a story. I do not recall the name of the man who originally built this diner, but it opened around 1955 in full battle regalia with aluminum siding, art deco ceilings, red booths covered in clear plastic, floor linoleum and a main counter with the stools that spun around.  Nobody thought anything unusual about it.

In fact, after a brief time, not many people went there because the owner and his wife were getting this huge, angry, painful divorce.  The business closed. Then it reopened again. Then it closed again. Then we learned that the property settlement between the two consisted of one of them getting the diner and half the parking lot, and the other getting the other half of the parking lot as a piece of property.  Within a year, one of those classic Carvel-type ice cream stands came in, also all chrome and glass and plastic, and it was mounted on a foundation on the empty property, just 40 feet from the diner. It never opened. And the reason was that suddenly a six-foot wood stockade fence appeared, separating the diner and the ice cream stand. It ran right down the property line, from the back to the front, all the way out to the street, so cars couldn’t come into the diner parking lot and find a way to get to the ice cream place. And there was no other access to the ice cream place.

Keep in mind that the diner wasn’t even open at this particular time.  It seemed clear that all the fence was designed to do was serve as a monument to the ongoing marital war.  You wouldn’t even want to reopen the diner, even though it had the access, because the fence blocked half the lot and you could see there was a war going on.

Things stayed this way for about ten years.

In the seventies and then again in the eighties, various people came along with high hopes and reopened the diner anyway.  The fence came down, though the awkwardness of the parking lot remained. The people who opened the diner back then did not reopen it as a classic fifties diner.  They tried to disguise that it had been a diner, creating false wood fronts, a wood patio (now torn down), and lots of hanging plants. These attempts failed.

And so it was that when this child-of-a-celebrity came along and took one look at it, the future became the past. Today the diner is scrubbed and shined and polished to a level never ever seen in all its days, except perhaps for when it was first opened back in the mid-fifties.  And all us middle aged folks going there love it.  Our kids do too.

The party I mentioned is being thrown by Martha Stewart on Saturday night to celebrate the completion of her renovation of the Lee Eastman Estate. It is a house warming.  And it is also a benefit.  Proceeds from the party will benefit Planned Parenthood, one of Martha Stewart’s favorite charities.

I am all for the approval of the Delish Diner proposal in the Town of Southampton. Among other things it is about five hundred yards from the Dan’s Papers offices here in Bridgehampton.  It is also directly across the street from where the Hamptons Drive-In once stood.These facts alone should be enough to influence the Southampton Planning Board to give its stamp of approval.

In any case, the planning members ought to go down to the Honest Diner in Amagansett and have a cup of hot java to get the feel of what the Delish might be like. Oh, I know it is different.  I’m talking about the mood.

There also ought to be one of these things in Westhampton Beach.

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