Empire strikes out: New tenant for 10th Ave. diner

The team behind the popular Coffee Shop restaurant in Union Square will take over the lease at Chelsea’s Empire Diner, with plans to revamp the menu and rename the iconic railcar-style eatery.

Carolyn Benitez, who co-owns the Union Square staple with partners Charles Milite and Eric Petterson, recently confirmed that their Gotham City Restaurant Group is about to close on a deal to replace the current operators of the landmark 10th Ave. diner.

“It’s a diner in feel, and that’s what appeals to us,” said Benitez, who would not disclose specifics of the 15-year lease but noted that the landlord approached her team with the offer. “It’s not going to have any other identity except being a great old diner with better food.” She explained that the Empire’s name would change under the new operators but said most of its aesthetic touches would remain intact.

Aside from burnishing the 3,000-square-foot space with minor renovations, the restaurant will essentially stay in “pretty much the same form that it is now,” except with a “Coffee Shop flavor,” Benitez said. The diner will continue to serve food around the clock, and the menu will get some “classic American” tweaking “with better ingredients and better quality production,” she added.

Members of the Empire’s current management have worked there for more than three decades, and owner Renate Gonzalez insisted she is still negotiating with the landlord to try to salvage a last-minute deal for them to stay. “We wouldn’t be here 34 years if our food was bad,” she said of the new operators’ plans to change the menu, noting, “the neighborhood knows us.”

The Empire crew will “definitely” search for a new space if an 11th-hour deal can’t be struck, Gonzalez added, bringing the diner’s New York-inspired name along with it.

Chuck Levinson, whose family has owned the property for nearly 80 years, said on Nov. 12 that the lease had not yet been signed but “a deal will be done in the next two weeks.”

Benitez and her partners appeared before Community Board 4 on Nov. 9 seeking a new liquor license for the space, indicating that they would take over when the current lease expires on Dec. 31.

While Levinson wouldn’t confirm the asking price, the real estate Web site Property Shark lists the rent at $25,000 per month.

“Chelsea many years ago was not what it is today,” he said. “It’s been a very strong anchor for the neighborhood, and I’d want it to continue in that manner.”