The Death of Pie

Robert Sietsema goes on an epic dessert binge to explore the current state of a New York institution: the diner pie.


All photos by Liz Barclay (@liz_barclay)

In the post-WWII era, the city flooded with Greek diners, with a reported 600 opening in the five boroughs between 1950 and 1970. These establishments sported a distinctive look that can still be seen today: long formica lunch counters with swiveling stools, booth seating upholstered in red naugahyde, bright lights, waiters in stained black vests, and lots of shiny surfaces. At the time, Greek diners represented restaurateuring at its most straighforward and efficient.

The menus were compounded of American dining commonplaces, including eggs, soups, sandwiches, hamburgers, steaks, and seafood of a modest sort, and the occasional Greek, German, or Italian dish. But while the fare offered was simple and unambitious, the desserts were often made to appear extraordinarily lavish. Displayed by the front door in rotating cylindrical cases, they were intended to punch you in the eye the minute you stepped in the door.

In an era when mothers were increasingly working outside the home, for many children the place for a taste of pie was not home, but a Greek diner.

Pies were the center of attention, carrying on an American obsession that extended back to colonial times: Of the pies made in early 18th century New York by both Dutch and English housewives, “apple was the universal favorite,” according to Richard J. Hooker in A History of Food and Drink in America. Greek diners carried on the fruit-pie tradition, but also added ice-box pies such as lemon, banana, chocolate, and coconut, incorporating refrigeration technology and tropical fruits into the canon, heaping the pie crusts with pudding, whipped cream, and meringue. In an era when mothers were increasingly working outside the home, for many children the place for a taste of pie was not home, but a Greek diner.

Photographer Liz Barclay and I decided to revisit diner pies, 60 years after they first appeared. We picked a neighborhood traditionally rich in Greek diners—in this case, Chelsea—and visited every one we could find in one single day of pie-dashing. In each diner, we’d order two pieces of pie. One would be the best pie we saw in the case, the other a more mundane example—apple if they had it, just for the sake of historic continuity. We visited 10 diners in all; here is the chronicle of our extreme pie run.

Click to start the list
  • Stephanie

    Moonstruck wasn’t on 6th Avenue. I think you mean Moondance, which used to be on the corner of 6th and Watts and was eventually bought & trucked out to Wyoming.

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