Square Diner
33 Leonard St.
(at Varick)
American (Traditional)

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 (who answered all of these questions). “We’re just the latest caretakers.”

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.

How 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.

What’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.

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.

How 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.

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.

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.

Photos by Claudine Williams, a contemporary portrait photographer based in Lower Manhattan. Her specialty is women’s portraiture as well as personal branding and magazine-style family photography.  


1 Comment

  1. Square diner was just featured on The High Road with Mario Batali on hulu. It’s episode 6 with Liv Tyler.