Opening a highly anticipated, revamped diner in an iconic space (left empty for the past few years) in the middle of winter is no easy feat, but somehow Chef Amanda Freitag rose to the occasion. Seeing the chef (formerly of The Harrison in Tribeca and more recently as a judge on Food Network’s Chopped) at the brand-new Empire Diner (210 10th Ave., 212-596-7523), you’d swear she cloned herself. One minute she’s on the line, executing dinner orders and keeping a close eye on every dish coming out of the kitchen, and the next she’s greeting patrons at the bar and rubbing shoulders with Chelsea neighbors in a booth.
OK, so maybe there really is just one of her, but Freitag is everywhere all at once — albeit in the Art Deco space revamped by Groundswell Design Group, steps away from the High Line. The joint has a throwback look (think channel booths and a honeycomb floor) and seating for 75 indoors; come springtime the sidewalk seating will accommodate an additional 75, and the restaurant will begin serving lunch and brunch later this winter/early spring.
We caught up with Freitag and talked comfort food and feeding her West Chelsea neighbors.
What is something you didn’t anticipate happening during this opening?
Already having regulars after a week of being open! We already have people coming in two or three times after being open a week.
Do you think they’re coming in because you’re in a cool, new local spot or from seeing you on Food Network?
I think that everyone’s so excited that the Empire Diner is back open. That’s definitely the vibe I’ve been getting.
What is the hottest menu item at the Diner so far?
What is really cool is that the two highest selling items after the first week have been octopus and the burger. To me, that means everyone’s getting it. It’s exactly what I wanted for the new definition of the modern diner.
Looking ahead to the coming season, what are you excited to add to the menu?
Spring vegetables! Any vegetable that’s not a root vegetable! It’s really hard to make an opening menu in January. I’m looking forward to [adding] some healthier items, and opening for lunch and making really fun sandwiches and big, loaded salads.
What do you anticipate never taking off the menu?
Pancakes are never coming off that menu, ever, and the patty melt is here to stay.
As a Chelsea resident yourself, do you have any favorite haunts in the hood?
Yes! I go to Cookshop all the time. … I go to Westville pretty often and I go to Foragers a lot. I buy their roast chicken when I don’t want to make my own.
Who are you most excited to see come through the doors of Empire Diner?
Any chef friends and any of my Chopped cohorts. Geoffrey Zakarian’s already been in; Marco Canora lives in the neighborhood and came by. For me, it’s exciting to have chef friends coming in, supporting me and giving good feedback.