Kathe Kraus had never tried rice pudding. “I grew up Irish, so what did I know about rice pudding?” said Kraus, a lifelong resident of New Paltz whose maiden name was McGrath. One day, while visiting her mother Dottie, who worked at the College Diner on Route 299, Kraus braved a bite of the popular dessert. “It was delicious. After that, I would go in every chance I could and get a cup of tea, which was ten cents, and a cup of rice pudding which was 30 cents.”
The College Diner, owned for decades by brothers Leo and Andy Vlamis, recently shut its doors after being in business since 1963. The property is currently owned by Joe Tantillo and has always been owned by members of the Tantillo family, who leased the lot to the diner’s original owners, Maria and Anthony Bliziotis, in 1963. “Best Wishes to our New Neighbor, the College Diner, from Tantillo’s Service & Supplies,” stated an advertisement in the New Paltz News on January 24, 1963, next to a picture of the newly opened Airstream diner that was called the “Silver Bullet,” which proudly advertised the “best coffee in town” and 24-hour service just “1/4 mile east of the Thruway.”
Route 299 and the New York State Thruway had only recently been built, and the diner thrived off trucker traffic, weekend tourists, college professors and students, as well as local families and high school students. “The waitresses all wore uniforms,” recalled Kraus, three generations of whose family had worked as waitresses at the College Diner. “They had pink dresses with the white apron and those soft white shoes, because they were on their feet so much,” she said. Back in those days there were professional waitresses who made their living in the hectic hustle and bustle of diners on the East Coast. “There were women who raised their families on the money they made, and it was hard work,” recalled Kraus. “We had five kids in our family, so my Mom had to work to help support us.”
But the diner was also a place to hang out as a kid, and certainly as a teenager. “There wasn’t a lot to do,” she said. “Marty [her husband] and I started dating in 1968, and we’d go to the picture show in town, and then we’d go sit at the diner afterwards.” She remembers it being so busy that they’d be stuck at the table long after they’d finished their French fries, because the waitress was too backed up to get them their bill.
Soon enough, Kraus graduated high school and waitressed herself to help pay her way through college whenever she was home on holidays or summer breaks. She can list some of the most popular dishes without hesitation: “The Jitterbug [white bread with a hamburger on top of it, smothered in gravy, with French fries on the side] and all of the club sandwiches. Number One was turkey, Number Two was chicken salad, Number Seven was roast beef; and then the Greek dishes, like souvlaki and the spinach spanakopita. People loved those.”
Several people contacted recalled the bakery at the Diner with fondness, as the Vlamis brothers and their employees made all of their cakes, pies and baked goods on-site very day. They would slice the meat right at a cutting station on the dining room floor, and make hot soups daily, for which customers would come in religiously.
But it was the people. Whether or not they were college kids nursing a hangover or a couple who loved the banana cream pie or a lone truck driver who came to fuel up on some coffee and pie before a long night on the road, these were the people who made the Diner such a welcoming community landmark.
Kraus remembered one man to whom they all referred as “Wonder Bread Charlie.” There was a Wonder Bread outlet on Route 9W in Highland at that time, and this diner patron would always come in and get a cup of coffee once he got off the Thruway, before he unloaded the bread from his truck at the Wonder Bread depot. “Then he’d come back and have dinner, and when he was done, he’d have to drive hours back home, and then do it all over again the next day,” she recalled. “We all really liked him, and when it finally came time for him to retire, I got permission to bake him a cake in the diner’s bakery, and I made it in the shape of a truck with the Wonder Bread balloons they used to have on the side of the truck, and we surprised him with a party in the main dining room. All of the staff came in, even if they weren’t working that night, and he was so happy.”
Like any place that is a bustling hub — particularly one that involves food service 24 hours a day, seven days a week — there has to be a little tension. “There was bickering, especially between the day waitresses and the night waitresses,” Kraus recalled. “I was a proud member of the nighttime waitresses who worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.” But the day waitresses were the professional waitresses who worked full-time and, as Kraus put it, “turned their noses up at us part-timers.”
“They’d complain that we didn’t fill the pepper shakers all the way, or that we didn’t fill the napkin dispensers correctly. There was always that bickering between the different shifts; but that was part of the culture,” said Kraus, who started working at the diner over holiday and summer breaks to help pay for college. “I was so nervous the night before I started that I couldn’t sleep. I had those professional waitresses on pedestals, and I was intimidated by them! But in the end, everyone worked hard, and you had to help each other because it would get so busy.”
Laurie Vlamis, who began working at the diner almost two decades later, concurred with Kraus. “I was so nervous when I started working there. I had just graduated New Paltz High School, so I knew so many of the people that came in, and their parents and their grandparents, and I was the new kid on the block. Those older waitresses were so competent and fast, and they scared me. But eventually I became that ‘older’ waitress,” she said with a laugh. Similar to Marty and Kathe’s romance that blossomed at the diner after the movies, Laurie fell in love with Andy; they married and had a daughter together, and continued working side-by-side until his death in 2014.
According to Laurie, Andy suffered a massive heart attack behind the cash register one day, and then a stroke. She had to look after him at the hospital in New York City and continue to work, take over the bookkeeping and ordering and tend to their then- young daughter. “I don’t know how I did it, but you do what you have to do,” she said, noting that his brother Leo “never really recovered from losing Andy. They were very close, and it was hard for Leo to keep everything going after Andy passed.”
After making their way from their native island of Andros in Greece to New York and eventually New Paltz, the Vlamis brothers worked for their uncle, Tony Bliziotis, and ended up purchasing the diner from him in 1972. “Ms. Battaglia taught the brothers English,” said Laurie, referring to a longtime New Paltz Middle School teacher, Claudia Battaglia. In total there are four brothers, and two of them, Theodore and Dimitri, took over the remaining two years of the 40-year lease that Andy and Leo had with Tantillo. “The families could never come up with a purchasing price that they agreed on, so the brothers ended up just leasing it for 40 years from Joe,” said Laurie. Two years before the lease ran out, Leo turned it over to Theodore and Dimitri, who gave it a run, but ended up closing the doors this past October.
What Laurie and Kathe remember, as well as the dozens of patrons who left comments on the College Diner Memoirs Facebook page, were all the “great moments and memories and people that I got to know and work with and take care of all those years,” said Laurie. “We were like family. I really miss it.”
Several people talked about their love of coming to the diner in the middle of the night to have cheese fries or fries with gravy after having danced a good portion of the evening hours away at Joe’s bar up the road. “This is so sad, used to be the stop after partying at Joe’s late night/early morning back in the day, the diner burgers w/French fries and gravy…always the best!” wrote Liz Polemeni.
On their Facebook page, the “Management & Staff of the College Diner” had this to say:
“We’d like to first thank New Paltz and the Tantillo family for housing our business for 56 years.
A special thanks to all our customers far and near that supported our business, making it successful for 56 years. A special thanks to all the staff, the lifers who worked decades, the part-timers, the college students and to all and everyone who had helped the Diner survive for almost six decades.
“The land lease came to an end and the decision to close the doors forever was made.
The Tantillos are now looking to sell their 2.14 acre property.
For the life of the College Diner, family members maintained key roles for continued success and eventually there were no longer captains willing and able to sail the ship. At the peak of the College Diner era, there were four brothers who had the support of their four wives, cousins and uncles from Greece and Mexico’s finest. Their ability to serve 1,000 people a day plus, anything from eggs to lobster, was truly amazing. During those times, the parking lot and the chairs inside were full 24/7 for decades.”
Each person will take their College Diner vignettes with them, whether it was their favorite song on the jukebox, their morning cup of java, a fresh cut of the roasted lamb, a thick slice of cheesecake, a first date, a last date or their firstborn dumping the sugar all over the table. It will stick with them like the smell of cigarettes in wool and evaporate into that deceptive wind of history that keeps picking up pace and then falling still, like the way cream eventually settles and the cup of tea warms their shaking hand.