11:31 AM

UPDATE: The Forest Diner has CLOSED.
Austin House
Forest Diner
Forest Hills Coffee Shop
Forest Hills Diner
T-Bone Diner
Tower Diner

Diners are the original American chain restaurant. They exist virtually everywhere, from the corners of big cities to the smallest of small towns. From I-95 rest stops to dusty desert backwaters. They may be cute tiny refurbished railroad cars, or they may be giant chrome and neon eyesores. Some serve porterhouse steak, others claim to have lobster on the menu. Some have Italian sections, some have Greek. Some have thirty varieties of hamburger, some have decided to ride the panini wave. But really, diners are the everything-restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, appetizers, desserts, shakes, you name it. And regardless of where they are or who runs them or what they look like, the all serve basically the same food and they all seem to use the same menu: spiral bound, thickly laminated for quick ketchup cleanups.

Diners, in spite of a few that have pretended to go the fancy route with their surf-n-turf lobster steak combo, and in spite of a few that have pretended to go the healthy route by making salads more prominent on the menu, no one in the real world thinks that diners are fancy(*) or healthy. They're not called greasy spoons for nothing. As an aside, I always chuckle when I see the sometimes vast list of "specials", as though there was a chef experimenting back in the kitchen hand-scrubbing the last grains of soil off of the organic Swiss chard he plans to saute alongside a truffle oil rubbed Cornish hen, screaming at his staff for letting the filet mignons sit on the grill four seconds longer than he specifically said. In truth, most people regard the "specials" being offered as the "this stuff's going bad soon so use it up" list.

And that, in a large sense, is the problem with diners. The popular perception is that they're supposed to be mediocre, if not outright suck. It's their destiny. As a result, the bar for what diners can get away with is set so low that just about anything above "hey I didn't puke" status earns the joint a gold star, a smiley face and a positive Yelp review. Meanwhile, that same meal, served at Cousin Wanda's house would be cause for a family meeting. "We're never eating there again."

Luckily for us in Forest Hills, we have choices. Six diners that I know of. Of course, once that choice exists, what good does it do if we continue to patronize the ones that stink? And how do we know which ones are the ones to stick to?

I therefore decided to traverse the neighborhood to try a couple of simple meals. Most people order breakfast, so I did too. And most people order burgers, so I did too. I'm not under the delusion that any of these diners make their own pies or cakes or cookies, so I didn't bother with dessert. But, a couple of times I went with a friend and they ordered something I did not, or I had been there before or I eavesdropped on the neighboring tables. I think it would be helpful if every reader dropped a comment about their experience as well. After all, like I said, these menus are big and no one can really cover it all.


72-04 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 544-2276

With the exception of T-Bone, right by the subway, Austin House probably has the most advantageous parcel of real estate. Smack on Austin Street where all of the shopping is. I have yet to ever go past and see it empty. I also have yet to ever see it full. The interior is shabby at best. There's wallpaper peeling off the walls and the Formica tables are chipped and in need of replacement. The space feels old, and while this isn't helped by the geriatric core-clientele, it's mostly due to the feeling that the space has been letting itself go for a while. It has potential though. The dining counter has a retro feel and the layout is very 1940s. I'm not suggesting that they ditch the diner motif and become a normal restaurant, but they could revamp the place and make it far more interesting. At least fix the radio, which was alternating between LiteFM and static. I order my eggs over easy, so they should bleed across the plate, but these were watery. In other words, the white wasn't fully cooked. I enjoyed the bacon, but the home fries, which were potato and nothing else, were forgettable and stuck to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter. The coffee was for diner coffee. My friend, Seth, who accompanied me this breakfast trip, ordered his eggs scrambled and his potatoes home fried. He cleaned his plate, so maybe that's the way to go with your eggs here. Breakfast cost: $7.90 plus tip, each.

I returned a week later for a meal with Bro. When I was there for breakfast the prior weekend, it was relatively full. This time, it was deserted. Bro and I were at one of the only tables with two people and the place was positively dead silent. A TV was on to kill the mortuary ambiance, but you could still hear your heart beating. Shhh! Quiet, Heart! You'll disturb the guy in the corner.

Bro ordered the gyro and onion rings. The gyro itself was standard but thoroughly mediocre. The taziki sauce may have been poor but at least the pickle was inedible. The onion rings rounded out his dinner by also avoiding being very good, too. So far, 0 for 4. Of course, I ordered the cheeseburger platter. The fries were fine, but the burger was worse than the gyro. It was clearly skillet fried and steamed to speed up cooking time, leaving that coagulated burger goop that grills don't leave. It looked unappetizing and tasted bland. Thank goodness for ketchup. I won't bother telling you what it cost since I advise those wanting hamburgers to look elsewhere.

63-61 108th Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 896-5301

Located in what I think can best described as a truly decrepit Kosher mini-mall, north of the main Forest Hills drags of Austin/QB and Metropolitan, is the Forest Diner, the first of three diners with "Forest" in their title. Oh, for some imagination! Anyway. If the Department of Health rated the place a B (see photo), then the interior tried hard to live up to that standard. The chairs are old and torn with the foam coming out of them. The ceiling is stained. The windows are in need of soap. The atmosphere is so 1972 that I half expected them to maintain a smoking section. When I sat down for breakfast, the waitress plopped a NY Post on my table. When I said no thanks, she just shrugged and left it there. I get it, believe me. The Post is a terrible rag, but don't toss your garbage on my table. On the other hand, at least the breakfast was okay. The bacon (probably the only place on the block to get it) was thick, but not as flavorful as what other diners served. The eggs were well made and the coffee was surprisingly good, albeit too thin. The home fries stunk, but not a single diner in the entire Smackdown with the exception of the people at the Forest Hills Coffee Shop (up next), seemed to know how to make them. It was nice that I was able to sit and drink coffee, read a magazine and not be bothered or asked to leave. If the service was cold and impersonal (and it was) at least they left me alone.

The cheeseburger I ordered a few days later was thoroughly forgettable. It, along with it's accompanying fries, were squarely bland, cookie-cutter diner versions of food you can get just about anywhere else. But what my cheeseburger lacked in flavor, it made up for in raw meat. Despite ordering it medium, it wasn't yet cooked all the way through. As with so many diners, this is a common symptom of cooking still-frozen-solid burger patties. With all the ground beef recalls this past year, maybe I'll get a little surprise. After all, it is almost Christmas and my stocking is empty. Maybe this year, St. Nick will give me dysentery (instead of the habitual coal).

96-07 Metropolitan Avenue
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 261-8705

The Forest Hills Coffee Shop on Metropolitan is the smallest and most truck-stoppy of the bunch. The shredded signage, and the sign on the window that says that approval from the health department is "pending", the cheap booths that shift when you get in and out of them and their eschewing of credit cards only add to the low-rent feel. Yet it's oddly the most inviting. It's warm and smells like grilled burgers and pancakes. I was intensely curious about the food.

The menu here is small. A third the size of the others. In fact, other than breakfast, all they serve are burgers and sandwiches. Good. The staff is extremely personable. And by personable I don't mean that they were nice, although they were nice too. I mean that they seemed to know everyone. It was like walking into the small town diner in a made-for-TV movie. Everyone waves at Joe the line cook, everyone gossips with Eileen the waitress (I made those names up. I don't know the names of the real staff). One customer showed up to give the diner a poinsettia plant for the holidays. It was a very nice gesture that one really never sees outside of the Lifetime channel. It's a family place, clearly. So they don't really have any outside help. In other words, the service is painfully slow. You're bound to be asked to sit at a dirty table until there's time to clean it between handing you the menu and taking your order. At least, this happened to me twice.

My breakfast, which cost about the same as the other guys ($9 with tip) may have been the best of the lot. The bacon was thick without being salty, the eggs were well made and the home fries, made with onions and peppers ad a little bit of tomato, easily bested everyone else's. The cheeseburger platter ($10 with soda and tip) was the cheapest of the bunch and was delicious. It was only slightly behind Tower Diner's burger. Good cole slaw, too. Meanwhile, the fries made everyone else's look like generic potato sticks. These were the only fries I bothered to eat all of. The South Beach people may frown in disappointment now.

60-60 Austin Street
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 997-7744

This is the newest of all the diners in the area and its shows if for no other reason than it's the cleanest. No peeling wallpaper, no dusty tube TV in the corner playing Fox News, no missing floor tiles. Like Austin House, it's on Austin Street, but it's way down on the other end near the medical annexes and the police station. The staff was the most friendly of any of the diners by a wide margin and each time I was there no one gave me any issue when I popped out my laptop to do a little work. The eggs were almost perfect, but a tiny bit overcooked. They didn't run as much as I would have liked. Still, the bacon was good and I was impressed by the coffee. The home fries were much like the ones at Austin House though. Potato alone, no peppers, no onion and no discernible spices. Breakfast cost: $8.10 plus tip.

The burger at the Forest Hills Diner was decent. I asked for it cooked medium, and it came just that. Medium. Not well done. Not scary raw. It wasn't a spectacular burger. It's not the sort of burger one might make a trip for, the way I would for a burger at Five Napkin, or that anyone would stand on line an hour to get, the way thousands do at Shake Shack. But it was good. "The fries were okay, but nothing special. The service was still extraordinarily pleasant. It cost about $12 with a soda.

107-49 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 261-7744

Yes, I know. I've been to T-Bone before and they were such a barrel o' laughs that they were worth their own review . T-Bone is notorious for being terrible, and between consistently broken neon letters, ripped awnings and a generally dingy appearance, no one can say that they can't see the food following suit. And the staff! If my waiter told me that he was about to hang himself in the kitchen, I wouldn't have been very surprised. These guys look just miserable. I was tempted not to go back, but I felt that it was only fair to re-live the glory. And I was, for breakfast anyway, pleasantly surprised. The eggs were fine (seriously, they weren't bad), and the toast wasn't given to me on a plate that was on fire. So far so good. But the bacon, while cooked well enough, was extremely salty. Maybe you like it that way, but not me. The home fries were no better, but no worse, than the other diners' on the list. The real kicker was the coffee. I'd just seen Due Date the other day and, taking my first sip, was reminded of the scene where the ashes of Tremblay's father are accidentally used in the coffee machine. If T-Bone doesn't get the gold for the worst coffee I've ever had, it sure can't be faulted for trying.

My return to T-Bone was greeted by a packed audience. I haven't seen a diner this full since finals in college. You couldn't eat wings or smoke in the library, so everyone who wanted that little corner of life-draining decadence headed to that big chrome building across from the mall. This time, I was seated by the window and met by a chipper waitress. No final goodbye note in her pocket. I wondered "could the days of the old T-Bone be gone?" Thankfully, I was saved by the next table. Two ladies sat eating and talking. One poked at her plate. "These are cold" she said of her steamed vegetables. Since cold steamed vegetables is a scientific anachronism, what she was saying was code for , "they didn't microwave this frozen broccoli properly." Her friend was more blunt, calling the waiter to complain that, having tasted her fish, she could tell that it was obviously not fresh. She sent it back. Ahhh, this is the T-Bone I know. But what of MY meal? What if it's great? Well, fear not. The fries were fine, but because the meat was so cheap, biting into the cheeseburger itself was like sinking one's teeth into a grease sponge. A puddle had formed on my plate from the fat that had seeped through what was soon to be a worthless bun, and I found myself unable to let go of the burger for the simple reason that there was no clean place to put it down. I paid over $13 with tip for the privilege of writing that paragraph. Like a concrete floor, T-Bone has managed to retain it's place securely on the bottom.

98-93 Queens Boulevard
Forest Hills, NY 11374
(718) 459-7000

The Tower Diner is just on the border of Forest Hills and Rego Park, and its 11374 zip code makes me think that there's a misprint on the business cards. Still, I love the Tower Diner. Always have. Sitting in what used to be a bank, not in a storefront hidden by scaffolding like some or with ripped awnings and broken signage like others, it's certainly the prettiest of the bunch. They're constantly busy and these trips were no exception. I find myself scratching my head at times wondering how it could be so busy in this part of town because, let's be honest, there ain't nothing there. Clearly, Tower is a draw.

Anyway, so breakfast. Again, I ordered two eggs over easy with bacon, home fries, toast and coffee. Again it cost about $9, plus tip. The waiter was... distant. Like a cross between someone bored and someone waiting for a hot date to show up. The eggs bled well, the bacon wasn't salty and the coffee, served in porcelain mugs so thick and heavy you could bash a mugger's face in without chipping it was decent enough for me to have had three or four refills. I used to have a rule. When I go to Tower for breakfast, I get the Alpine Omelet: bacon, swiss cheese, mushrooms and onions. Like I said, the eggs I ordered were fine. But I pined for that omelet. My friend Pike joined me and ordered the Pancakes Deluxe: pancakes, sausages, ham and bacon. Factor in the butter and the fakle syrup that naturally winds up sugar glazing it and this is basically a heart attack on a plate. He loved it. Said he'd definitely get it again.

I returned a few days later to order a hamburger. Walking in I took in the smell. It seemed... off. Almost weird. It smelled like... a real restaurant. I looked around, not seeing people eating diner food. I saw people eating what looked like real food. I felt almost like I was cheating myself getting a mere cheeseburger. I told myself that perhaps Tower deserved a standalone review. Regardless, chiding myself for ordering a "mere" hamburger was a chide made in error. The hamburger was simply fantastic. It was thick and it was juicy and having ordered it medium, it was bleeding. This wasn't, or didn't taste like, a once-frozen slab of grade-D-but-edible patty-shaped ground beef product. This was a real cheeseburger.


So, the winner of the Diner Smackdown: Tower Diner. The best eats. The best atmosphere. The cleanest. A notable mention should go to the Forest Hills Coffee Shop, which really impressed me with what I got. The interior and exterior is a little shabby and they really need to hire a second waitress, but I will absolutely eat there again... especially once they start taking credit cards. Forest Hills Diner was pretty good too, with the best and friendliest service, and it's easily the most convenient to me. Alas, it was somewhat generic.


(*) I readily admit that there is a fancy "diner" recently opened in Long Island City, Magasin Wells. But it's wears the diner name with irony, the way a hipster wears a smiley-face t-shirt. And yes, I will go there soon.

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