It’s a Sunday morning in June, so early that the sun and most upstaters are still rising. The parking lot at Tilly’s Diner, a stone’s-throw from the Monticello Raceway, is half-empty. Within the hour, a line of people will snake outside the door of the steel dining cart. Inside, in the calm before the storm, Chico Rodriguez stands before the countertop griddle, eyeing the handful of tickets that float before him. Chico has been working at Tilly’s for the past 23 years, first as a dishwasher before becoming the owner ten years ago. From his youthful face, you’d never guess he had that many years in the business. “Best breakfast chef I’ve seen,” says Barbara, waitress for the morning shift, as she glides two plates of pancakes with sides of sausage off the counter, “and I’ve been working in restaurants my whole life.” 

I set out on a tour of some of the region’s favorite diners with a plan to sit a moment longer in the corner booth and take a closer look at these roadside eateries. From the iconic Edward Hopper painting to the ‘50s culture of shakes and fries epitomized by Grease, diners are pure Americana. Across the decades, they have offered refuge to all—from truck drivers fueling up to high-schoolers feeding the munchies to grizzled regulars looking for a spot to read the paper and shoot the breeze.

Before the rush at Tilly’s Diner.

Every diner has its unique story, its own special menu items, often reflecting the owner’s past. Yet the commonalities are what define them as diners and make them a unique presence in the culinary landscape. With the growth of chain restaurants and to the rise of farm-to-table dining, there is a comfort in the quiet resilience of the diner. The owner is usually there every day, either manning the griddle or leading the front of house, and customers can always find breakfast staples done well, any time of the day or night.

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Breakfast at Tilly’s Diner.

My tour kicked off with Tilly’s, Sullivan County’s quintessential diner. A steel structure with a gleaming bar, swivel stools and portraits of Elvis-era starlets lining the walls, it’s a popular destination for travelers and locals alike. My breakfast order of a short stack and two eggs over easy arrives in under ten minutes. Except for a moment to turn around and smile for a photo, Chico never leaves the helm. His nephew, Joe, keeps the hot coffee coming.

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A classic BLT and coleslaw at Horizon Diner.

The Blue Horizon, my next stop, is located just a short ride from several of the once-popular resorts that put the Catskills on the map. From the Pac-man arcade game at the entrance to the photos of Borscht Belt performers, it’s clearly been untouched by the passing years. The proprietor, an elderly man named Steve, sits at the edge of the dining room quietly observing the goings-on. He’s owned the place since the mid-80s.

Steve proprietor of Horizon Diner sits back and observes.

Nearby hangs a portrait of his late wife, who passed away just a few months ago. These days, their daughter runs the Blue Horizon and their son is in charge of the nearby Roscoe Diner, another destination for hungry travelers. Steve watches as plates are ferried to our table. The sandwiches come with dill pickle spears, fries and coleslaw. The only frills are the fancy toothpicks that hold them together.

A sampling at Kosmic Kitchen.

My final stop, Janet Planet’s Kozmic Kitchen, came highly recommended by several local diner experts. Located on Route 17B, the historic route to the original Woodstock festival, Janet’s is more Jerry Garcia than Buddy Holly. The specialties are the all-sirloin burger (unfortunately not served on Sundays, the day I visited) and the corned beef hash, a divine mix of crispy fried corned beef, onions and potatoes. Janet, who reigns over the grill, cooks 40 pounds of brisket for days to go into this dish. It makes for a perfect lunch, washed down with a fizzy egg cream. Because of her downstate roots, Janet knows how to make an authentic one: Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup, whole milk and seltzer. Thanks to her past occupation, the place is immaculate.

photographs by lawrence braun

Kosmic Kitchen owner Janet heads the grill.

“I was in the tattoo business for 27 years,” she says in a thick Long Island drawl, “so I know the value of cleanliness.” Her tattoos and punky hairstyle allude to her biker past. She’s also got less apparent but equally legit claims to fame—two appearances on the Geraldo show (a motorcycle episode and being on the receiving end of a tattoo gun in another) and one on Howard Stern when she tied for the win in a female burping contest.   

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Janet writing the check.

“I look like I’ve been diggin’ graves,” says Janet with a cackle, as she takes a moment to inspect her hands. “I’ve got blueberries under my fingernails.” With Janet, customers always know what they’re getting. Her food is fresh and made with care. But will she share the secret recipe to her famous hash? “She could tell you,” says regular counter patron Gene, “but then she’d have to kill you.”   

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A patron at Tilly’s Diner.

The comforting thing about the diners we grow up with is that they remain largely unchanged. If I go to Miss Monticello Diner today, I can still get the same cup of matzoh ball soup and grilled cheese with sliced tomato I ordered every Sunday back in high school. If I’m feeling decadent, I’ll order rice pudding—something I never order anywhere other than the diner. It always comes topped with that pristine mound of Reddi Whip. Occasionally, there’s a style outlier like Janet’s but even at the most basic diners, you can count on getting a fresh, hot meal without breaking the bank. No doubt that’s why, in the midst of a constantly shifting culinary landscape, the trusty diner never loses its appeal.

Credits

Words Caitlin Gunther  Photography Lawrence Braun