Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Patrons Mourn The Loss of Shalimar Diner - Now Available For Rent

By Michael Perlman

Full house at Shalimar Diner, Photo by longtime patron Ivy Hammer
For nearly 45 years, the Shalimar Diner has been an unofficial Rego Park landmark at 63-68 Austin Street. It was manufactured by the popular Kullman Dining Car Company, and was one of numerous freestanding Greek family diners dotting the tri-state area. In 1974, it was delivered on a flatbed truck, and a diverse menu has been delighting palates ever since for family occasions, friend gatherings, first dates, and community meetings. It was a destination where patrons at nearly any hour would sit elbow to elbow at the counter or comfortably at a booth or table. The diner has even been in the spotlight for a number of productions including the CBS drama “Blue Bloods” and the 2016 film “The Wolf of Wall Street” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. 

Behind its stone and streamlined fa├žade, patrons attest that owner Chris Karayiannis and his staff have become an extended family, but on November 25, tears were exchanged. The Shalimar was forced to shutter after the owners unsuccessfully negotiated a new lease offered at reportedly more than double the rent for a 20-year period. It has now met the fate of the Flagship Diner among others, unless it can be acquired by a party who is willing to meet the asking price or will present an offer for the property. 

Dr. Arthur Gudeon with some of his favorite servers, Dennis & Dell
For over 70 years, Dr. Arthur Gudeon, a well-respected podiatrist resides in Rego Park, and was a Shalimar regular. He reminisced, “My office was across the street when the Shalimar was built, and I was one of the first customers of the four brothers who owned it. It’s been our go-to place for my family, office staff, friends and neighbors. I’ve also treated my many podiatry students, and we have enjoyed the food, camaraderie, and the consistently friendly staff. I recall the years that they had jukeboxes at the booths which also made it a fun experience. Although my office moved to Fleet Street, I still brought Shalimar breakfasts to my staff regularly.” On the farewell evening, he spent three hours over dinner. “The diner was loaded with regulars, and we went to our table reminiscing and often tearing up, and of course I took lots of selfies with friends, patients, and staff.” 

“This is a story of the ‘Real’ Rego Park with a teary-eyed ending,” said Margot Zimmerman, another Rego Park native. The Zimmerman Josephson, and Morgan families (her relatives) spent decades at the Shalimar. She reminisced, “After the horrid gas explosion on that block, it was exciting to have a new family diner. Back in 1975 to 1978, there was no place for the teens in the neighborhood to go, so the owners would let us stay in that little lobby to hang out until the wee hours, but with no partying. As I got older, this was the place to be after a night of clubbing. I remember many late night meals at 5 AM, and it was a home away from home for Passover and Thanksgiving for a larger extended family.” She continued, “As the area changes, the first generation of new cultures stick to what they know, but it won't be until their children’s children become Americanized, that they may want to experience the real Americana.”

Bonnie Sholl relocated to Rego Park in 1984. She said, “This was where I have memories of my married life, friends visiting, my son’s first restaurant experience at one-week old, and quick and delicious ‘Dinners for Lunch’ before I taught clarinet lessons.” The Shalimar serves more than food, according to Sholl. “It serves friendships, community, reasons not to stay at home, and gives a pleasant diversion to our lives.” 

Shalimar Diner main dining room, Photo by Frank Carroll
For 20 years, Forest Hills patrons Frank Carroll and his wife Gina have shared many laughs and good times with the staff, and especially their waitress and good friend Judy. He and his wife, along with staff members became emotional on the final night. He explained, “The Shalimar offered that true New York diner experience that our out-of-town family and friends craved for. It added a charm to the neighborhood, where people would always socialize in an informal atmosphere and leave feeling better. Losing the Shalimar, as well as other small shops and smaller theaters nearby is diminishing our New York culture. Now there are too many vacancies and too many towers going up. What a shame that the landlord and the current owner are unable to negotiate an acceptable lease!” 

Ivy Hammer & her husband Steve pose with owner Chris Karayiannis, center
Rego Park residents Ivy Hammer and her husband Steve were also sure to say their last goodbyes. “We used to bring our son Michael in his car seat into the diner, and even though he is now 25, the owner Chris still asks about him.” Hammer called the Shalimar a great place to bring grandma on a Sunday afternoon. “You don't have to worry about what type of food she will like because you have your choice of everything in a diner. Many elderly people and singles in our neighborhood count on eating there daily or weekly, so it is sad that they will have to find another place to easily get to. It was close by, affordable, and there was parking.” Her tears continued upon learning that one of her favorite waitresses, Dottie, recently passed away.

The Hakim family has lived in the nearby Walden Terrace for generations, and it has been a staple for Lisa Hakim and her family. “On weekends and after every softball game we would go to the Shalimar. I always enjoyed their breakfast, but I could never stay away from the pickles.” Hakim is hoping that it can still be preserved. “Most local businesses that are family-owned are closing due to the high rents. I wish there was a way we could save this one, as it's one of the last from my childhood.”

Mira Pinkhasova descended from Russia and lived in Rego Park for 21 years before relocating to Long Island. She feels that diners are part of the American Dream, and said, “Diners brought all types of cultures together, and everyone eats eggs afterall.” She called Sunday breakfasts a tradition. “My husband loved his eggs sunny-side-up. My daughter, who is now 12, has great memories too. We loved their pancakes and cheese fries. Now I work nearby, and on Fridays, my colleagues and I would go for lunch.”

“It feels like the death of a good friend,” mourned Rego Park resident David Schantz. “This is an old-school railroad style diner, but will now be a lost architectural design.” For him, among many others, a visit turned into a “family gathering.” “Patrons developed longtime relations with usually one waiter or waitress, but most eateries nowadays do not have that due to the high turnover in the food industry. I would chat with owner Chris, who was always willing to engage.” His favorite foods were the turkey meals and a periodic buffalo burger with sweet potato fries, but it is also the small details that count. “I will miss my weekly after breakfast prune Danish.”

On its final day, patrons were hard-pressed to find a seat. Among the expressions of gratitude by patrons were a display of letters and poetry in front of the cash register. Forest Hills resident Carol Lustgarten, who often dined with her close friend Amy, designed a colorful collage featuring the retro Shalimar sign along with a detailed handwritten poem that began “Shalimar, oh Shalimar; You’ve been part of my life for so long; Where did we ever go wrong?; Now you are singing your goodbye song.” It concluded with “We will always keep fond memories in the light and in the dark; Every season; You are a true landmark!” 

Shalimar Diner menu, Courtesy of Dr. Arthur Gudeon
A similar version of this feature has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

Long-Awaited Station Square Restoration Progresses

By Michael Perlman

Station Square is continuing to undergo restoration, brick by brick, after construction began in April and sections were fenced off to vehicular traffic. Last week, local residents and LIRR commuters observed workers reinstalling the historic brick surface along Continental Avenue, which many considered a breath of fresh air. In a time when many buildings citywide that merit preservation fall victim to the wrecking ball, Station Square’s restoration is a rare sight, and marks one of the largest restoration projects in Forest Hills history.

Station Square is the gateway to Forest Hills Gardens, America’s earliest planned garden community, founded in 1909. Inspired by Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement, the model residential development was designed by principal architect Grosvenor Atterbury and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Station Square accommodated a classy social life, particularly at the Forest Hills Inn, which opened in 1912 and offered 150 rooms, adjoining the Raleigh apartments on the east and the Marlboro apartments on the west. The LIRR Station, once accessible from the Inn through arcades and bridges sheltering residents and visitors from the weather, enabled a 13-minute commute to Manhattan. The Tudor village ambiance gave birth to historic events including annual 4th of July celebrations, Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s “100 Percent American” speech on July 4, 1917, and Helen Keller’s address to over 1,200 soldiers of the Rainbow Division that same year. 

Tony Barsamian, a member of the Board of Directors of the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation provided an in-depth view of the restoration. In order to upgrade utilities to meet 21st century standards, the overwhelming majority of original bricks were carefully salvaged and stored in Station Square and FHGC facilities. “We have cleaned and replaced every brick with either the original brick or custom-tailored bricks 100 percent to match the originals. We’ve padded them with the same sand in terms of how we lay them down. We don’t use mortar, since it cracks when it is icy or snowy, or water gets into it and then it freezes. We have gone out of our way to maintain it to hopefully last another hundred years.” 

In addition to addressing the roadway’s sinking elevation, Barsamian said, “We made improvements in the center island in terms of bringing it back to its original form.” He continued, “When you dug underneath Station Square, you saw that some of the lines and infrastructure elements were dated. Between National Grid and Con Edison and some other service providers, they came in and upgraded their connections to the homes and our community at large.” Water lines were also repaired. The plans will reportedly include the illumination of Station Square’s arcades.

Routine maintenance has been conducted annually, but not a restoration to this level, according to Barsamian. “This is a unique project that should garner great support from historians, since it will bring to life something that could have disappeared. We will probably be finished in February, but a ribbon-cutting ceremony or party may take place in March to welcome everyone to the beautifully restored Station Square.”

“When I watch bricks being put down in 2018, I imagine what it must have been like in the early 1900s,” said Barsamian. “I ask myself, ‘What were the original construction workers and masons thinking? Did it occur to them that they were involved in something so monumental that it has become a model throughout the country and the world, and when someone wants to create a planned historic village? Did the workers have any concept that the brick that they put down would still be walked and driven on?’ This is a throwback to an earlier time, and yet it was futuristic while designing from the past.” 

Barsamian owes much of the success to restrictive covenants. He explained, “A major reason that the community has been maintained for 100+ years is that homes are required by a covenant in their deed that they keep the integrity and structural soundness of the founding fathers’ established code. You cannot walk in and say I’m going to put in a checkerboard look or paint my bricks green and orange. People buy into the neighborhood knowing that there are restrictions on what can be done, and they need to seek our approval based on the community’s original design. That is why it is a timepiece, where you might as well be in an 1800s European Tudor village.”

Station Square’s restoration is not only marked by the most recent roadway project, but is witnessed along its Tudor facades. George Hoban, president of Station Square Inn Apartments Corporation, explained, “Over the past 10 years, our corporation has spent over 7 million dollars restoring our three buildings, and I don’t think people realize that it was funded entirely by less than 100 owners through assessments. People may also not realize that out of the hundreds of brick patterns throughout the buildings, each and every brick pattern is unique.”

Hoban also extended compliments to the Forest Hills Gardens Corporation and Friends of Station Square for their commitment to restoring and beautifying Station Square over the years, and said “The planning and logistics behind this project were obviously challenging, but they have come through flawlessly.” As a 21-year resident, he added, “I still feel a sense of joy each and every time I come home and see the beauty of the Square. I would see the surprised faces of New Yorkers coming off the LIRR into the Square for Forest Hills Stadium concerts and sensed that many were unaware such a beautiful and unique place existed in NYC.”

For another resident Dan Ziegler, who is the owner of Station Square Fight Fit at the Forest Hills Inn, he is also very pleased with the restoration of a town center with many paths. “When I come home, I almost feel like I'm in Europe. Famous people used to stay in my building, and I love how we can go for a stroll in the Gardens and look at mansions, or walk to Queens Boulevard for more of a city vibe. It's almost like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ where you go through a door, and each door has something special.”

“Visitors may not realize that when you get an aerial view of Station Square with its bricks, it looks like a map of England,” said Gigmy Bista, manager of Jade Eatery & Lounge. “I cannot wait for the restoration to be complete. We would always have locals, commuters, and tourists taking pictures and hanging out, and it was really good for businesses.” Station Square is symbolic of his first time settling in America. “When I attended Queens College, I started working at Jade as a server and remember admiring the Square so much, having my meals on the Square’s bench, and feeling special. I always think of Jade and the Square as my second hometown.” 

A similar version of this feature has been published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column: http://www.foresthillstimes.com/view/full_story/27618913/article-Station-Square-restoration-moving-forward