My sleepy hometown in Southern California has a sort of “Anywhere, U.S.A.” feel, a town where everyone remembers you from when you were small and you could never get lost. One of the main streets is on the historic Route 66, and our proximity to Hollywood keeps a nostalgic scent in the air. One of the best things about old Hollywood life is the diner, where jukebox tunes and greasy plates are available at all hours of the night. In fact, in our little town, the corner diner is the only place open at all hours of the night, making it the perfect destination after big games and school dances, when the only thing you want is a pile of breakfast food.
The funny thing about New York City is that it also loves its diners. It loves the Mom-and-Pop establishments that have had the same faded menus and the same tunes playing since you-can’t-remember-when and the regular customers that order their regular dish—no mayo, extra pickles—and the neighborhood can’t remember a time without that diner. It’s a slice of small town in the big city, a little pocket of comfort from the fast and furious world out there, and it reminds me a bit of home. So when few weeks ago, one of my friends suggested we all hit up Big Daddy’s diner for a late dinner after work, a slightly homesick me smiled at the prospect of a little hometown charm.
Big Daddy’s has three locations in New York City, but we chose the Upper West Side location because it was the closest to school. This particular branch is located at 91st Street and Broadway, a short walk from either the 86th Street station on the 1, B, and C trains, or the 96th Street station on the 1, 2, 3, B, and C trains. If you’re hailing from Columbia University, it’s a pretty pleasant walk from Morningside Heights, especially now that there isn’t any slush on the ground.
Big Daddy’s diner is possibly the most diner-y diner I have ever seen in my life. Walking into Big Daddy’s was like walking into a diner theme park, but in an endearing, rather than gaudy, way. The décor screams, “DINER!” with funky old license plates, signed photographs of celebrities from the last fifty years, and random toys displayed on the wall. In addition, a middle school birthday party was in full swing upon our entrance, and the speaker system blasted everything from Elvis to Madonna to the Beach Boys. It was as if someone had turned a Pinterest board of diner inspirations into an actual restaurant, but instead of being really kitschy like you might expect, it was very sincere. Like a diner that just wanted more than anything to be a diner.
The staff was so friendly, and let us switch around tables when we added more people to our group last minute. The staff T-shirts cleverly read “Who’s Your Daddy?” on the back, and our server in particular was attentive without hovering. I told her about my food allergies and she immediately had suggestions. She confirmed that Big Daddy’s is a nut-free kitchen, and she told me that I should just choose something that I liked, and she would ask the chef how to make it work.
Because I suddenly had choices, I debated for a while on what to order. Big Daddy’s is known for their milkshakes and pancakes, but obviously those were out of the question. Usually diners mean midnight breakfast to me, and heaps of hash browns, eggs, and bacon are all that I consider. However, with the prospect of more options, I decided to branch out and try the Mr. French Dip, a roast beef sandwich. Our waitress confirmed that the baguette bread was dairy free, and made it very simple to eliminate the cheese and the sauce without any fuss.
One of the fun things about Big Daddy’s was the stack of Trivial Pursuit on each table, giving us some entertainment while we waited for our food. This particular group of friends loves to attend local trivia nights at bars, but we rarely win anything significant. At Big Daddy’s, we brushed up on our random-fact knowledge, and learned that Christopher Jones captained the Mayflower, that the Houston Astrodome is known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and that the Ed Sullivan Show was originally called Toast of the Town. By the time our food came, we were basically experts in useless facts.
So I don’t know who came up with roast beef sandwiches or the idea of dipping them au jus, but they were a genius. Big Daddy’s leaves the crusty, fresh baguette untoasted, and the roast beef inside is sliced deli-thin. While the sandwich isn’t packed, there is definitely a good bread-to-filling ratio, particularly when you take into account the delicious addition of caramelized onions. The dipping broth was salty but warm, and full of a hearty roast beef flavor. One complaint I often have about crusty sandwiches is that they scrape the roof of my mouth in an unpleasant way. Eating it au jus dispels that problem! Big Daddy’s also gave an appreciably large side serving of French fries, and pickle slices, a necessity for any sandwich plate.
Because the portions were so large, I ended up taking half my sandwich home as leftovers. Our waitress gave me the perfect size box, and a tiny little sauce container for the broth. I was afraid the container would leak between dinner and our next adventure, but it remained intact until I opened it again for lunch the next day. The sandwich heated up remarkably well, and if there’s anything better than a hot roast beef sandwich au jus, it’s a second hot roast beef sandwich au jus!
As we ate, the place filled up, mostly with neighborhood youth and young Upper West Side professionals. Big Daddy’s is slightly more expensive than I would expect a diner to be, but then again, I’m used to the insanely cheap “weekday power breakfast” of chain restaurants back home. Compared to regular New York meal prices and considering the portions, Big Daddy’s was actually a great value, especially when you’re also paying for a safe kitchen environment and great ambience.
In addition to being walking distance from school, Big Daddy’s serves their full menu at all times of the day, which is a big plus when planning adventures in the city that never sleeps. Now my friends and I will have a go-to place for our late-night cravings: a diner that is allergy-friendly and also just regular friendly! Cue the jukebox.