I'm a big fan of comfort food and an even bigger fan of all things retro.
So you can imagine my delight when, seemingly overnight in a dark corner of a
vibrant upper-east-side neighborhood (Second Avenue at 83rd Street) was alight with neon and stainless steel. A
couple of drives by revealed what appeared to be a diner, decorated in a wild
and funky retro style. We had to go.
It would be foolish to lease a space as large as this in this particular area
of Manhattan. I'd hazard a guess they bought the building, which had displayed a
big "for sale" banner for months before the closing of the restaurant's previous
You Gotta Be Hip To Dine Here, But They'll Take a Nerd's Money Anyhow
As we approached, my heart sank because it just seemed that the decor and the
waitstaff were hopelessly chic. This, for me, means two things: a) I'm not "hip"
enough for the place and b) I'd have to pay dearly for all this "chicness" (is
that a word?). My inklings were correct. The maitre d' (or "greeter," in this
case) looked us up and down and just stood there, wordlessly, being "hip," appearing to try to make up his mind whether we were so filthy rich we didn't care how we looked, or that we merely didn't care how we looked (the latter being the correct assumption). I
gave him a whole 60 seconds to say something; anything, and then scoped
out a clean booth and asked to be seated there. He shrugged and said "okay," and then
disappeared in the opposite direction.
The menu pricing was surreal. This was no diner; the prices raised my
expectations of the vast offering of comfort foods. A burger, fries and coleslaw
was $11. A cup of coffee was over $2.50
Noise but a Cure
Just as the screams of the children who were present began to overwhelm me
(somehow I didn't equate "hip" with "child-friendly") and the '80s pop blaring
from the (poor) sound system added to the cacophony, a little table-top sign
directed my attention to the presence of adult beverages. The place has a full
bar. A martini and a Bloody Mary later and the din became a distant memory.
Just like the "Greek" diners that serve everything all the time, this place
prides itself on the availability of breakfast all day long. Order eggs Benedict
and a Bloody Mary or a Mimosa and one has a wonderful brunch - any day, any
time. Now, one can certainly order eggs Benedict and a Bloody Mary any time at a diner,
but this is a place where they encourage that; I've tried the same thing
at other diners and some guy named Dimitri comes over and asks "what's a Bloody
Our first meal here was a chicken Caesar salad which was passable ($14). The
Tuna sandwich on "hand-cut seven-grain bread" was good; but unless the
bread-cutter has a very fine hand and pre-slices it, allowing it to dry out,
they shouldn't boast such things. A plus: the tomatoes on the sandwich were
properly ripened and a delightful change from the mushy, pink crud that passes
for tomatoes in wintertime. The sandwich comes with a choice of Tater Tots
(little hunks of formed mashed potato with grated potato outside; these were
underdone and not crispy enough) or Fries. Go for the fries unless one wants to
be reminded of the fare at one's school lunchroom.
The Reuben Sandwich (called "Reuben Kincaid," all the food had retro-funny
names, typically taken from old television series, this one The Partridge
Family). It was $12, was missing the promised Swiss Cheese, and wasn't grilled
the way a proper Reuben should be at all. One plus: both Tuna Sandwich and
Reuben came with homemade coleslaw that was out of this world; proving that the
kitchen can create food which is deserving of these prices when it wants
to. Sadly, a request to buy a pound of it came with a "deer-in-the-headlights"
gaze and "oh we can't do that."
Desserts consisted of pies, cakes, all kinds of Sundaes and their signature
shakes. Pies and cakes were about $7; Sundaes $10. The menu pricing follows some
pricing-guru's theory that if the prices don't end with ".99" people will think
they're cheaper. Prices like $6.42, $2.53, $9.65, $10.96 were scattered about.
What this philosophy does achieve is a kind of headache-producing
confusion. Why not just go with the flow and round things out to the even
The restaurant's website reveals that the parent company owns two other
branded restaurants; another diner-kinda place and a popular upscale seafood
restaurant. Their website invites potential investors to email them, real-estate
brokers to peddle their "AAA" locations to them, and staff to email resumes. The
parent company's site boasts a serious commitment to customer satisfaction. I
was taken back when "Big Daddy's" site's "comments" page had a box for one's
name; email; telephone, and then preceded the "comments" section with "So,
Citysearch and other websites were full of criticism for the two branches of
this restaurant; however; these must be taken with a grain of salt. After all,
this is New York and people who have a good time spend time, well, having a good
time and usually just the kvetchers waste their time actually writing
reviews on such sites.
Back to the company's own site; they had a vast 2 pages of "press," but none
from the majors; all from some magazine I'd never heard about before that I'd
hazard is a freebie. And who cares if some semi-famous rock guitarist was
interviewed in your restaurant? That says nothing of the food nor service. In
fact, the din in the place is such that perhaps one could only interview a
rocker there without the interviewee continuously going "huh?"
The southeast corner of 83rd Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City was
long occupied by a Malaysian restaurant called Penang (which has
moved three doors down the block to an abandoned "gourmet" Chinese location. The
food was priced reasonably and was very, very good. The problem, I guess, was
with the decor. It was like a welder had gone wild; everything, I mean
everything, was made of steel or iron, even the enormous, bulbous protrusions
from the front of the building which accommodated the semi-private dining rooms
for eight on the inside. (The steelwork in the bathrooms had begun to rust in
places; not a pretty picture.) The darkness inside was by no means romantic; imagine eating inside
an iron works (the chairs must have weighed 50 pounds) decorated with bamboo and
that was it. I guess the neighborhood had finally tired of the novelty.
A Comment about Design
Whoever designed the restaurant did an interesting job - just too much of it.
There is no way to attempt to blend the '60s, '70s and '80s all into one
restaurant. The much more understated way to go would be stick with one decade
and go from there. Of course, among the mish-mash of decorative items there was
stuff that we all could recognize and remember fondly (but why did they
spend so much money on vintage '50s porcelain signs?) A whole wall was covered
with logotypes carefully reproduced. It appeared as if all the companies were
defunct but at closer inspection some were not — can we say "copyright
A little research on the part of the designers could've come up with a much
more visually pleasant experience with artistic merit. (What's with the
bleak robin's-egg-blue on the ceilings? I'd have chosen blue-black or black to
make 'em disappear; again, the need to be different left out a tried-and-true
formula for restaurant design.) The black and white "autographed" photos of
long-dead stars were phony and out-of-place on the pale blue walls; c'mon; it's
all too much already!
Pros: Brunch everyday, all the time; massive burgers done to a turn;
helpful staff; a sweet-tooth's paradise. BOOZE! Delivery available. Parking at a
meter is never a problem for us so long as one stays on 2nd Avenue.
Cons: Noise. Food mistakes abound. Noise. Server application must
include question "do you have attitude?" Noise. Prices would be a good value if
food were executed right; but expensive. Noise.
Missing: Macaroni & Cheese, Open-faced Turkey Sandwich, Mashed
potatoes, Meat Loaf.
Big Daddy's East Side
1596 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10029