Spotlight: Square Diner

Square Diner Teddy and Anna by Claudine WilliamsBecause this site focuses on news, businesses that have been around awhile—and that make this neighborhood special—don’t get the coverage they should. The photographs are by Claudine Williams, who specializes in head shots for actors, business professionals, or anyone looking to be photographed. She also dabbles in street photography for fun. Originally from Philadelphia, she has made NYC her home for the past seven years with her husband and son.

Everyone knows the Square Diner, the small (1,000 square feet), triangular restaurant on Finn Square, at the corner of Varick and Leonard. It’s owned and operated by Anna and Teddy Karounos, who live in Queens. “It’s definitely an institution of Tribeca,” says Teddy. “We’re just the latest caretakers.” The plan was to interview both of them, but Anna had to help customers with a pie tasting—they’re serving her pies at their upcoming wedding.

Tell me the story of the Square Diner.
It’s been here forever! I once found an old black-and-white photo that showed a wooden shack here called the Square Diner. That was right before the Great Depression. I think it’s been here over 100 years. The building itself is a train-car style diner made by Kullman Dining Car Co. of New Jersey. It’s not a real train car, of course—it’s modular construction to look like one. I believe it’s from the 1940s. Anna’s dad, John Siderakis, ran it from 1971 to 2001, and I took over in April of 2001. There’s a lot of history in this old place.

Square Diner Diner Interior by Claudine WilliamsHow has the business changed?
In 14 years, there’s been a complete about-face. Our business was mostly lunch back then, workers in the neighborhood. Now all the offices have been converted to high-end luxury condos and our slowest days—Saturday and Sunday—have turned into our busiest. We added a full liquor license and an outdoor café. We’re hosting more parties. And in the past year, four TV shows have filmed here: “Daredevil,” “Gotham,” the HBO miniseries “Crime,” and Ed Burns’s upcoming “Public Morals.” And an independent film is shooting here in the beginning of June.

What are you known for?
Breakfast and lunch, primarily. We have great fresh food. We’re trying to do things in the old-fashioned way. The American diet is coming back this direction.

Square Diner Apple Pie by Claudine WilliamsWhat’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
It’s the kids. On Saturday and Sunday, families come and have breakfast and the kids are in their pajamas. We’ve seen them go from diapers to college. That’s really wonderful. We feel like a member of the community.

How has the menu changed?
We’ve added a lot more fresh ingredients, and we make more here. We’ve always cooked our own turkey, but now we also make our own corned beef hash, roast beef…. The fruit salad is now all fresh. We have more salads. We added quesadillas, paninis—we do tacos off the menu sometimes. We added avocado, which has been really popular. And we started doing our own veggie burgers! It’s Anna’s recipe. Anna is also the baker, and everything is baked from scratch. I’ll tell you what we don’t sell as much of anymore: soda. We sell about 20% of what we used to when I started.

Square Diner Counter by Claudine WilliamsTribeca has obviously changed a lot. Any changes that have surprised you?
Leonard Street alone has had about $4 billion poured into it! There’s 56 Leonard, the New York Law School building, 18 Leonard (which was just finished when I started in 2001), 34 Leonard, 88 Leonard, 15 Leonard…. And now 24 Leonard is under construction. And that’s just Leonard! It’s been great to watch it happen.

Who makes up your clientele? Residents, workers, and students?
You’re missing a group: tourists. There’s one day every spring when they all just start showing up. I’d say it’s 25 percent tourists, 30 to 35 percent locals, 25 percent workers, and the rest are students.

Square Diner Anna Carrot Cake by Claudine WilliamsHow do tourists find out about you?
Of course we’re on TripAdvisor and Yelp and those sites, but a lot of people have a positive experience and then tell people back home. And I definitely reach out to concierges to make sure we’re on their radar.

The groom-to-be approaches our table. “I understand you’re a reporter!” he says. “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 31 years and I’ve been coming here for 31 years. I’m getting married and they’re catering it. Put it in the article!”

So I guess people feel at home here.
I have a regular, she comes in all the time. She usually sits outside with her dog. The other day, when she was done, she just got up and walked away. She came back later and apologized—she said it didn’t even occur to her to pay. I told her, “That’s because you feel so comfortable here!” I want the sidewalk to feel like a backyard, not a corporate experience. We’re a mom-and-pop experience.

Square Diner Fruit Salad by Claudine WilliamsWhere do you eat/drink/shop in the area?
Tribeca Tavern is our local watering hole. AOA has been a lot of fun. Church Street Tavern and Church Publick are both good. Lucky for me, Anna just started to come in a few days a week. When you work six or seven days a week, it’s nice to have a drinking partner to drown your sorrows with!

What does the future hold for the Square Diner?
I’m hoping to take it 24 hours—I’d love to go that route because, in many ways, the logistics are easier. And we’ve had a few issues with break-ins lately—more in the past two years than in the previous 15. Our ATM was broken into, someone came in through a window and stole some liquor, and we’ve had windows smashed.

What question didn’t I ask?
What’s the hardest part?

I’d think it’s the grind.
Yeah. My father-in-law had the place for 30 years and lost power one day. We’ve had Sandy, 9/11, a transit strike, the letter grades…. The last 14 years have not been for the faint of heart. The name of the game is adapting to change.

Square Diner Exterior Sign by Claudine WilliamsPreviously in this series:
••• Langdon Florist
••• Tribeca Upholstery & Draperies
••• Double Knot
••• Philip Williams Posters

3 Comments

  1. They manage a fun Instagram account! Every post brightens my day!

  2. This is the best diner in the city. Hands down. Classic menu. Today’s newspaper waiting for you. Unbelievable food. If you are in the area and you’re not eating there, your wasting your time! WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU??!!

  3. So many great reminders in this article of why we need to support the local businesses! So happy to hear they seem to be doing well in the wake of all the changes. We have worried about them succumbing to all the development, etc…. congrats Square Diner!

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