Quite a few golden anniversaries of notable events are being observed in 2019: the first human on the moon, the Woodstock Festival, the Stonewall riots. An event took place in New Paltz 50 years ago that didn’t grab headlines, but created a lasting legacy: Harris Dariotis, a 26-year-old immigrant from Greece, and his friend George Demosthenous had a foundation built in a mall parking lot and assembled a prefab diner, manufactured in three sections in New Jersey, on the site. They signed the lease in March 1969 and opened the Plaza Diner to the public in November.
Dariotis and Demosthenous remained partners in the business for 25 years, with Dariotis taking over full ownership in 2005. Half a century after the Plaza Diner’s founding, Harris – known to most of his staff and customers as Bob or Bobby – is still running the place. Many of his customers have been coming here nearly as long as he has, and many items on the menu are the same as they were back in the restaurant’s earliest days.
Looking the menu over, this correspondent was nostalgically reminded of late-night suppers after a movie during 1970s college days. That old reliable, vegetarian souvlaki, is still available. The folding room dividers that used to segregate smokers from non-smokers now simply denote the border between the diner’s original core and the “new” dining room that expanded seating from 89 to 243, circa 1985.
At age 76, Bob Dariotis says he doesn’t work as much as he used to, which still translates to six days a week, most of the time. In early June he took a rare vacation and traveled to his native land for a big family reunion in Athens and a side excursion to the island of Santorini.
“There were 14 of us, including kids and grandkids. When I came back from Greece after two weeks, it was a Saturday and I was tired. But on Sunday, it was Father’s Day, and I saw balloons put up outside the diner.” With a little coaxing from one of his daughters, Bob stopped in to see what was going on, His staff had organized a surprise party for him to celebrate the Plaza Diner’s golden anniversary.
It’s clear from the glacially slow turnover in staff that Bobby is a beloved boss. “I feel fortunate to have so many good people working here for so many years,” he says modestly. “My baker has been with me for 48 years.” That’s Ray Crispino, known to one and all as Chippy. “Most of the kitchen staff has been here over 20 years, and the wait staff – most of them, close to 20 years.”
The regular customers come back day after day, year after year, grabbing their favorite booths and shooting the breeze with their friends. “I know most of their first names,” says Dariotis.
John Magaletta, who says that he has been coming to the Plaza Diner regularly for 40 years, is a retired golf-course designer known simply as The Pro to many fellow patrons. “Mostly I come for breakfast,” he says, “and for the sociable people I meet here. I see the same people in the morning every day. We say hello, goodbye, we argue politics.” Pointing out his usual spot, Magaletta says, “Everybody wants the corner.” When his daughter wants to track him down when he’s not at home, she phones the Plaza Diner and asks for him. She has to ask for The Pro, not for John.
Although the Plaza serves the Mediterranean dishes to be found in any diner founded by Greeks of a certain generation, it’s not particularly known for any specialty dish, beyond the fancy cakes that Chippy has perfected over the decades. It’s your basic, eclectic diner menu, offering mostly solid, wholesome, all-American comfort food. Customers praise the burgers, the turkey dinner, the Reuben and Monte Cristo sandwiches. Nothing is particularly trendy, but everything is just right: fries that are crispy, cole slaw without too much mayonnaise, deli pickles that snap when bitten into.
It’s nice to know that some things that started out good have never changed.
“This place is blessed,” claims waitress Sue Minervini. She points to the back door that was struck by a stray bullet this past June 1, only about a foot from a dining room window, when a 22-year-old man from Saugerties, Jeremy Kaartine, arranged to meet his estranged father at the Plaza Diner as a convenient halfway point. The younger Kaartine killed the elder in the parking lot and then shot himself during a police car chase. Murder-suicides nearby aren’t normally good for business, but Minervini sees her patrons’ narrow escape as an example of the diner’s “good energy.”
Longtime employees will surely never forget the day in September 1997 when a frequent customer, Barry Weingartner, staggered into the diner covered with the blood of their colleague, 28-year-old waitress Darlene Bower, whom he had been dating – or perhaps simply stalking. Weingartner confessed on the spot to having bludgeoned Bower to death with a hammer. He was apprehended shortly thereafter by police, convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison.
That’s not the history that the Plaza Diner’s staff and patrons want to remember. But any place of business that stays open continuously for 50 years is bound to have its very bad days.
The karma that sticks to this restaurant, everyone seems to agree, is almost always excellent. After all these years, it’s still open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can get any meal off the menu you want, any time of day, whenever you’re hungry. And you’ll probably run into someone you know, no matter what the hour.
Meanwhile, Bob Dariotis isn’t even thinking about retiring. No one is in line to take over the business. His wife Lorraine died in 2018. Their six children are all grown, well-educated professionals pursuing careers outside the restaurant world. “If I ever start not feeling good, I’ll probably sell it,” he says of the diner where he has spent most of the days of his long life. “But the doctor can’t find nothing wrong with me yet …. I stay busy all the time.”
The Plaza Diner is at 271 Main Street in the New Paltz Plaza. Some would call it the Tops Plaza, but when one tries to remember the names of all the different department stores and supermarkets that have anchored that shopping center over the years and then gone out of business, it becomes more apparent how extraordinary it is that this diner has stood firm for so long.
Stop in, grab a bite, and say hi to Bobby. He’ll have your name down before you leave.