At first glance, Diner 21 seems to be straight out of the 1950s, but upon closer inspection this new addition to New Haven’s restaurant scene is anything but the stereotypical, all-American diner.
The restaurant itself is a busy, modern take on old-fashioned diners, combining steel-rimmed countertops and cozy booths with stylish low-hanging lights and leafy potted plants for a look that is both contemporary and bright. The menu unites modern dining with a more traditional experience, serving conservative fare like burgers and buffalo wings, as well as salads, wraps, and drinks from the bar. Even the music in the diner brings old and new together, varying between favorites such as Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart and the Dave Matthews Band.
“We’re not your typical diner — the food is upscale but at diner prices,” Luciani said. “We also have a full bar and liquor license, but it’s still a place where you can get a milkshake or banana split.”
The diner, which moved into its Temple Street location on Dec. 30, is one of several new businesses that have moved to the area or are expected to arrive soon. The Criterion Cinema across the street from Diner 21 has posted solid numbers in the past year and is often the top-grossing theater in the Hartford-New Haven market, Criterion manager Joe Masher said. Luciani said easy student access is one of the top benefits of the new location, adding that there are many reasons for Yalies to stop in at New Haven’s newest restaurant and one of its only diners, including its late-night hours.
Leslie Saad Luciani, Debbie’s daughter and one of the co-owners of Diner 21, said the Temple Street area has been a big draw for customers.
“There’s a big nightlife area here, with strips of bars nearby the green and easy access to Interstates 91 and 95,” Saad Luciani said. “We also definitely see kids who stop by coming in and out of movies.”
Scott Healy ’96, executive director of the Town Green Special Services District, said Criterion’s opening in the former United Illuminating Headquarters building has been a considerable success for the area. The property had been vacant for years, but has since become busier as the theater has begun to run more popular films.
“You couldn’t imagine a more desolate place before Criterion moved in,” Healy said. “It’s not just an indie art-house theater like most people mistakenly bill it.”
While some area business owners such as Luciani say that business at Criterion picked up when they began playing more mainstream movies, Masher said the theater has always attracted a lot of customers.
“It’s a correlation with the product — the product has simply improved,” he said. “It’s no secret that Hollywood has had a horrible year, but the theater is by no means struggling.”
Masher said that while some of the films Criterion showed earlier in the year were high in quality, they didn’t have the same press and marketing as some of the more recent feature films. He also said that “Brokeback Mountain” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” are doing very well so far, and that “History of Violence” and “March of the Penguins” were huge successes for the cinema in 2005.
With both the Criterion and Diner 21 making a successful start to the 2006 year, some city leaders said they are looking forward to more economic development in the Temple Street area.
“It would be great to have some additional retail down there, maybe even some specialty shops,” said Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce President Tony Rescigno said.
Rescigno said he expects the arrival of Gateway Community College in downtown New Haven to create an even greater market for restaurants, theaters and retail in the Elm City. Deals and financing are in place for the relocation of the college, which boasts 150 faculty members and 4,000 students.
Plans are also in the works for a new pan-Asian restaurant called Coup d’Etat to move into a location on Temple Street sometime before February, Healy said. In addition, a new restaurant, Barcelona, is scheduled to move into a location next to the Omni Hotel within the next four months, and a spa is set to open in the area sometime in the coming year.