A glowing realization of a “λαθραίος” dream
■ By Constantine N. Kolitsas
HISTORY tells us that the first diner was created in Rhode Island in 1872 when Walter Scott began selling food from a horse-drawn wagon to employees of the Providence Journal. But for many, it’s Northern New Jersey that is ground zero for the storied “Greek diner.” And just as the early diners evolved from Scott’s wagon, today’s diners continue to evolve, with much of that evolution spearheaded in New Jersey, where the world’s largest concentration of diners exists. The River Edge Diner, nestled in a quiet residential hub in Bergen County, is among the latest and greatest examples of the new diner movement, showing the way of the future and indicating a path for diners everywhere to follow.
A familiar story, the River Edge Diner is owned and managed by a family of Greek Americans with strong ties to the local community. Led by the family patriarch, Steve Siderias, the River Edge Diner, or “the RED,” as it’s fondly referred to by patrons, has been a focal point for decades. Today, however, it is Steve’s son George who manages the day-to-day operations. And it is George who was the driving force behind the diner’s recent transformation.
An imposing presence against an otherwise inconspicuous landscape of strip plazas, homes and schools, the newly renovated RED is, outwardly, an impressive structure with a combination of stone and soft earth-tone walls that are punctuated with black-and-white awnings, iron rails and vintage-style street lamps. A 50-seat outdoor patio is among the RED’s newest features, as well as a 16-stool bar and a 15-foot bakery section that greets patrons as they enter.
The renovation that was completed in September had its genesis in 2012, just a few years after George’s graduation from culinary school and the commencement of his tenure as management at the RED. “I always knew that I wanted to take over the family business,” says George, a genial young man with a warm smile that extends from his neatly cropped auburn beard.
“For almost ten years, I kept a log of ideas and a dossier of hundreds of photos from road trips that my father and I would take,” he explains. “Everywhere we went, we looked at diners and restaurants and made notes of the things we liked… a ceiling here, an archway there…”
The project began in earnest in March 2016 with a call to an architect. Originally, he indicates, the idea was to simply do a remodel. Approvals from the town came in October 2016 and construction by the New York Builder’s Group under Mike Karam began. “In the beginning we thought we could stay open through most of the construction,” says George. “But the project kept growing in scope. In the end, we replaced structural beams and walls,” he indicates, necessitating a complete shutdown from March 2017 until September.
Asked about the impetus to undertake such a significant project, George indicates that he wanted to ensure that the RED would meet the needs and desires of his clientele well into the future.
“We didn’t need a remodel to protect our business, or because the diner was in disrepair or was outdated,” he says, with an animated smile. “The worst thing is to wait until you need to do a renovation.” Instead, he indicates, it was important to stay ahead of the curve, not to follow or lag.
“One of the things that we knew we needed to do was to provide a private space for gatherings,” says George, indicating an open area that flows from the sit-down bar. He then points to a set of panels in the walls to the left, and a set of ceiling tracks. “We took a lead from the catering halls,” he says, explaining that retractable walls enable the space to be divided for special events. One division, he says, will accommodate 40 people, another will accommodate 100 and a third will accommodate 120. “This was in response to our customers,” he continues, noting that he is booking showers, engagements, retirements, milestone occasions and repasts.
Also in demand, he says, was the need for a sit-down bar. “We would have people meeting their families for dinner,” he says. “We never had anywhere for a guest to sit and wait.” Now those guests can enjoy a drink at the bar and catch up on sports scores or news headlines, he says, adding that the bar also attracts people who come in to watch games or just relax after work.
One of the most significant changes, of course, involves the diner’s bakery, long a central part of any diner’s DNA. “Like many diners,” he says, “we had dessert cases spread out throughout the dining room.” Now the RED’s eye-dazzling assortment of cakes, pastries and confections are centralized at a bakery section situated immediately inside the building’s main entrance. Fifteen feet of continuous multi-level bakery display stretch out along the entrance, with an espresso station and bakery takeout area integrated into the space. A lovely young hostess wisely notices a customer eyeing the display and offers advice on her favorite—a cake ball stuffed with chocolate mousse and covered in a velvety ganache. “If you don’t have room after your lunch, you can take one home for you and your wife,” she suggests.
As one would assume, bakery sales are increasing daily.
Another aspect of the RED’s renovation and rebranding concerns the menu. Items were streamlined off the menu and new items added. “We really added quite a bit on the salad side,” says George, reflecting changing eating preferences.
What hasn’t changed is the egalitarian aspect of the RED, and with all diners. Here, all are equal. When it comes to a great meal, Masters of the Universe hedge fund managers collide with seniors on a fixed income; attorneys with tradesmen; soccer moms with landscapers. And whether that meal is an old-fashioned meatloaf with mashed potatoes or a salad with radicchio, quinoa and roasted pumpkin seeds, all find something for their palate and diet.
The River Edge Diner may have undergone a transformation under George Siderias, but the success of the diner and its place in the community is something that was established by Steve Siderias, the family patriarch and also co-owner of three other diners that are significant players in the Northern New Jersey diner landscape.
Listening to George speak about his father is heartwarming, as the level of respect, love and devotion is palpable.
Jumping the ship
Steve Siderias came to the United States in 1965. Just sixteen years old, and with no knowledge of the English language, Steve quickly adapted to life in the “Land of Opportunity” and, through hard work and dedication, was able to realize the American Dream.
“I got a job on a freighter that I knew was coming to the United States,” says Steve, a thin man whose kind face reveals wrinkle lines that are the result of hard work, and a continuous, gentle smile.
“Of course, I was ‘lathraios’ [an illegal], as most of us were in those days,” he says. “When the boat reached the U.S., I asked the captain, who liked me, for a few dollars to go ashore and buy something for my family at home.”
“You’re not coming back,” the captain told young Steve with a smile. “Go, but don’t let the first mate see you—he’s stricter than I am and he’ll keep you from leaving the boat.”
Steve never returned to the boat, leaving his belongings aboard the ship, which a shipmate later returned to his family on the island of Chios.
“I worked all the time,” says Steve of those early, formative years. “My first job was in a restaurant, but I only lasted two weeks,” he says, the irony not lost on either of us. “Every day the cook would give me two eggs, a few potatoes and a slice of toast to eat. I didn’t have money to buy anything else after work, so that’s what I survived on. One day, the cook was off and his replacement made me a steak. When the cook came back the next day I asked for a steak. I needed the protein—I was starving to death!” When the cook refused, he walked off the job and called an uncle to help him to get back to Greece. Instead, the uncle brought him to a supermarket.
Partnership with Alex Alexandris
“I worked at the at supermarket for almost ten years,” says Steve. He quickly rose to the level of produce manager. Restless, he spent his off time working as a landscaper, a painter and a country club busboy. In nine years he had saved enough money to go into business. A friend, Alex Alexandris, had a luncheonette. The two of them pooled their resources and purchased the River Edge Diner from Aristides Veloudos in 1974.
Together, Steve and Alex built the business steadily, establishing the diner as a fixture in the community. “Alex is a hard worker and a gentleman,” says Steve of his longtime partner. “You just don’t find people like him anymore.”
“My father and Alex went into business together as acquaintances and by the time Alex retired, over 30 years later, they were family,” adds George. “And they remain that way to this day. I still speak to Alex very often myself, and I consider him a second father.”
In 1979, Steve married Stephanie Higgins, a Brooklynite raised in Sparta, Greece. Together, they have four grown children and nine grandchildren. (“We’re going for a dozen,” he jokes.) As Stephanie cared for their children, and for his parents, who followed him to the United States in 1968, Steve applied himself to the business and eventually opened three other diners with different partners: the (newly renovated) Suburban Diner in Paramus and the Heritage Diner in Hackensack with his brother Mike Siderias, Tom Higgins and Nick Koutsouris; and the Plaza 23 Diner in Pompton Plains with Nick Koutsouris, Mike Siderias and Nick Manalis.
“I give all the credit to my wife,” he says, indicating that she is the backbone of the family’s success. “She did a great job with our kids.”
In those years he spent very little time with his children, he confesses. “George was a great hockey player, and I had never been to a game. One day he came to me and told me that the other players and their families thought that his mother was a widow. This tore my heart, and from that day on, I never missed a game.”
Going to culinary school
When high school graduation came, as George’s dad and mentor, Steve insisted on him going to college.
“I didn’t want to spend four years in school when I could have been running the diner,” says George, who had worked his way up from dishwasher as he was growing up in the business.
“I didn’t care if he studied to be an astronaut before taking over the diner; I wanted him to have that degree on the wall,” says his father.
In the end, it was George’s mother who convinced him to go to culinary school. “I always loved to cook as a child. I was always in the kitchen. She suggested I get an education doing what I loved. It was the best advice anyone’s ever given me,” he says, indicating his affection for the “strongest, most supportive and most levelheaded woman” he’s ever known. And so it was at the New York Restaurant School in Manhattan that George studied pastry arts, culinary arts and restaurant management, providing him with tools that serve him well in his role at the helm of the RED.
While George runs the day-to-day operations of the diner, there isn’t a day that Steve isn’t there.
“He may have given me the responsibility for the business, but he’s on top of everything,” says George. “He doesn’t miss a thing, from the big picture to the smallest detail. He keeps us on our toes.”
It’s almost 3:00 in the afternoon on a sleepy Tuesday afternoon, but the diner is still bustling.
“It’s amazing.” A customer approaches George to offer his congratulations on the diner’s new look. “And somehow the food is even better than it was before!”
This exchange, the host tells me, is typical. Customers are responding incredibly well to the new RED, she says. And the renovation has attracted a new clientele, while longtime customers continue to be the business’s backbone.
“The diner is my life”
Graciously accepting the kudos, George asks the guest about his children, who are grown now and out of the house. He asks about them by name, recollecting his last conversation with this guest and picking up where an update is appropriate.
“The diner is not my business—it’s my life,” says George, and this philosophical viewpoint is a critical component of the diner’s success. “Ninety percent of our business is repeat,” he says. “I know most of our customers by their first names. I ask about them not because it’s good for business, but because I care. I grew up in this town, and it’s a part of me,” he adds, understanding the important place the diner has in the community’s identity and cultural fabric.
In this way, and with this new transformation, George Siderias is poised to continue his father’s legacy and the diner’s relevance well into the future. At thirty years of age, and with a young wife, Deanna, and newborn daughter, Christina, he has a long and (what is sure to be) successful path ahead of him.
The Evolution of the River Edge Diner
When Steve Siderias and Alex Alexandris purchased the River Edge Diner in 1974 it was still a bus car. Immediately the partners invested in the building with some modest changes: the kitchen was extended to accommodate additional stoves, and a walk-in cooler was installed.
In 1983, the basement was built out and the size of the diner was doubled. The diner was no longer a bus car, but a fully-fledged building in its own right, with over 100 seats.
In 1998, Steve and Alex undertook another major renovation, giving it a design and layout that would serve the business for nearly twenty years.
In 2005, Alex retired and sold his stake in the business to Steve.
For the 2017 transformation, Steve and George hired New York Builder’s Group as the construction company under Mike Karam. Today, the RED has a seating capacity of 250 and is a glowing realization of the diner’s evolutionary destiny.
“Mike Karam and his company, NY builders group, were there for us every step of the way,” says George. “From our first meeting, it was very clear to me that this man knew his trade, and he was a straight shooter.”
As the project progressed, Mike was there every day alongside his team to make sure the project was on schedule, says George. “When we encountered unforeseen circumstances that would normally make a client panic, Mike was right there next to me,” he says. “He would tell me, ‘Don’t worry about it George, we’ll get this straightened out and make up some time to get it back on schedule.’”
“Whether that meant staying late or working weekends, he always did what had to be done, and he never lost his signature calm demeanor,” George says. “I take my hat off to him and his team for building us a gorgeous place that exceeded our hopes. The workmanship they provided us is the type of quality that isn’t so easy to come by these days.”