Diners are cool, a quintessential American artifact whose utter lack of pretension equals democracy in the food world. Sometimes that turns out to be a disappointing proposition: The food can be bland and served in such humongous portions that eating becomes exhausting. But there’s a diner that breaks the mold, serving locally sourced meats, produce and eggs in inspired entrées that transcend the plain surroundings, even as they pay homage to the diner tradition of simple comfort food.
Located deep in the Catskills, on Route 28 shortly before the turnoff to Phoenicia, the Phoenicia Diner is famous for its all-day breakfast – which becomes brunch, if you add a mimosa, Bloody Mary or bourbon milkshake. (Along with the soup-of-the-day and the daily specials, a special cocktail – a Shokan Sunrise, consisting of infused vodka, OJ and vanilla ice cream – was also featured on the blackboard when I visited last week.)
The Campanelli Farms chicken used in the Chicken & Dumplings Platter, combined with root vegetables and served with crispy ricotta/scallion dumplings, and the locally smoked trout you can order on your Avocado Toast (mashed avocado with hardboiled egg and pickled mustard seeds on toasted levain bread) are the kind of ingredients that you won’t encounter in the standard diner and represent a conscious choice by owner Michael Cioffi to reinvent the genre. “Every diner I visited as a kid had a menu of 40 pages of food that wasn’t very good,” he said. “I always gravitated towards the traditional, such as the turkey club or burger. We tried to distill that down and make it more contemporary for how people are eating today.”
Cioffi had no restaurant experience when he and his wife, Helene Banks, bought the diner in 2012. They live in Brooklyn and have a weekend house in Margaretville. After he sold his business constructing scenery for TV and Broadway shows in 2010, Cioffi was searching for a new career. “I’ve been passing that diner for 20 years,” he said. “I talked about having a restaurant, and my kids and wife were all excited about me finding something new. The diner happened to be available, so the timing was perfect. We bought it and did a renovation to restore and update it. It’s got great bones, which we wanted to honor.”
The diner was built in 1962 by the DeRaffele Manufacturing Co., which was based in New Rochelle. It originally was located on Long Island before being moved to its current site in 1982. “A lot of people coming through here recognize it from years before, when it was on Long Island,” Cioffi said. True to form, the diner has large plate-glass windows along the front and side, which provide views of the surrounding woods and mountains. The Formica bar, which runs along the back, faces a backsplash of orange, white and turquoise tile framed by a zigzag stainless steel border along the top. A Coke machine and traditional green menu boards above the steel border (listing the kids’ menu, along with beverages and desserts, including “homemade pies & cakes $4 and $5/a la mode $1.50”) lend a retro touch, while the board-sided ceiling adds rustic warmth. The soundtrack when I visited featured KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees’ “Saturday Night Fever” and other cheerful pop standards, at a volume low enough not to interfere with the conversation.
The chef, Chris Bradley, is no short-order cook. He worked for the prestigious Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City before moving to Kingston. Bradley and his wife wanted to leave the City to raise a family and happened to cross paths with Cioffi. “Chris had been to the diner, and joked with his wife what a great place it would be to own or work in,” Cioffi recalled. Cioffi had just purchased the former Gypsy Wolf restaurant in Woodstock and was looking to expand. (The new restaurant will serve dinner, unlike the diner, and will open by the end of this year.) “Flash-forward a couple of months later: We put out the ad and he responded to it.”
Bradley, who started work at the Phoenicia Diner a year ago and is a part-owner in Cioffi’s expanding restaurant group, hails from the South, and so his adjustments to the menu included adding grits, as well as biscuits and gravy. “My view is: The more comfort food you can find on that menu, the better,” said Cioffi. Hence there is meatloaf (made from locally raised beef and pork), pan-fried trout (after all, this is the Catskills), corned beef (house-cured and from grass-fed brisket), turkey club, Reuben and classic BLT sandwiches, fried chicken served on a house-made waffle and many other entrées. There are also several vegetarian entrées and a selection of four healthful salads, including baby kale with marinated beets and almonds, and quinoa served with romaine, tomato, cucumber, chickpeas and feta cheese with a red wine vinaigrette.
But it’s the breakfast items, which can be ordered all day, that are the most popular: buckwheat or buttermilk pancakes with local maple syrup, French toast, ’shrooms and caramelized onion gravy served with herbed ricotta and an egg on bread with greens, omelets, Benedicts (choice of spinach, Canadian bacon, locally smoked salmon or crabcakes) and the “full breakfast” – the kind of spread you get at B&Bs in Ireland that fill you up for the whole day: two eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans, grilled tomatoes, potatoes and toast. “The thought process for me was that the entry point would be coffee and breakfast,” said Cioffi. “We’re not studying French cooking.” That emphasis has bred in him a respect for the simple egg, because of “the amount of ways you can have that egg and the care you need to take to cook it, from sunny-side-up to over hard and everything in between. Even a poached egg, if it cooks a few seconds too long, is no longer correctly poached. Eggs are hard.”
Very local sourcing of items like eggs is sometimes difficult, given the volumes. “We have to go further afield to get them,” he noted. “The flip side is, someone shows up with a crate of butternut squash, and it’s too much; we can’t make that much butternut squash soup. We do our best on the protein side to go local and try to stay seasonal on the vegetable side,” with seasonal adjustments made to the menu.
The Phoenicia Diner hires 25 people on a weekly basis, with slightly more in summer. “It’s a lot of hours for everybody,” said Cioffi. “Having come to the restaurant business late in life, I have tremendous respect for people who work in commercial kitchens. The work ethic is amazing. Meanwhile, people in the front of the house have to be in a great mood all the time, no matter what’s going on in your private life. Your public life is on a stage.” There has been no turnover. Many employees grew up in the area, he added. “We don’t just try to buy locally, but we employ locally as well.”
Given the diner’s rural location, miles from the nearest population centers of Woodstock and Kingston, Cioffi was initially surprised at its popularity. The clientele includes people who grew up in the area, second-home owners and day trippers from the City. While the Phoenicia Diner does not serve dinner, occasionally it hosts private events, such as a rehearsal dinner. This summer Cioffi is adding a food truck, housed in a 1962 Airstream. (“Everything’s built in the same year. I was born in 1962.”) The food truck will open around July 1, and will enable people to get a snack while they’re waiting for a table or order a light breakfast, seated at the picnic table outside.
“We built the place with the idea it would be a local place to go have breakfast and lunch, and it’s evolved into a weekend place where people gather and enjoy the Catskills,” he said. The black-and-cream menu supports that initiative: Printed on the paper placemat and designed by Gabriella Wilson, it’s adorned with charming images along the perimeter, each accompanying a nearby attraction, such as a horse silhouette for the Rosemary Farm Horse Sanctuary, tragic/comic masks for a local theater, binoculars for the Ulster County visitors’ guide and a tiny train for the Empire State Railway Museum. The website is listed for each attraction. “These are not advertisements. We print those menus ourselves as a guide for people to go out and hike and fish and enjoy the Catskills,” Cioffi said. Wilson also designed the logo, consisting of a station wagon with various outdoor equipment tied to the roof and a background of evergreens and mountains. “People seem to gravitate towards the logo, to the point where last summer someone came in and showed us the logo tattooed on their forearm. I was horrified – and complimented.”