Defining the corner of 43rd and Eleventh, the Market Diner stands as a living phenomenon of Hell's Kitchen in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Opened in 1962 by the Zelin family, it has attracted a shockingly eclectic set of people, including Frank Sinatra, Jerry Seinfeld, Geraldo Rivera and members of the Westie gang. As this area of the city was undeniably dangerous, there were always several police officers in and around the diner, and in a show of appreciation, the staff allowed them to eat at half price. As this diner was supposedly, at one time, the only one in Manhattan that offered free parking directly in front of the building, the restaurant was also frequented by many taxi and limo drivers.
In 2004, the Zelins sold the diner for economic reasons. The new owners kept it running until 2006, when it seemed to have fully closed. Loyal customers imagined the worst, that the Market Diner was shut down forever. In 2009, however, it was reopened, having been restored and ready for business. The diner has always brought in an assortment of people leading completely different lives. Nevertheless, there is one common aspect that has consistently drawn people in for almost sixty years - they are a 24/7 operation.
“If you’re going to the theater, you go to Tony’s, ” said Dreni Kyqykaliu, the restaurant’s general manager. Those en route to a Broadway show are a good portion of their clientele, nearby office workers make up the lunch rush, and tourists pop in during breaks between sightseeing. “The blessing of being in Times Square is having all these groups come in. ”Anyone who has visited Tony’s will be familiar with their signature, massive portions of food that are meant to be shared family-style. This adherence to simple but hearty cooking is a trademark of the people that started Tony’s: the Wetansons. (They founded the now-dissolved 1950s burger chain, Wetson’s, which later merged with iconic hot dog vendor, Nathan’s Famous. ) Four generations of Wetansons have run this network of casual dining establishments that also includes Dallas BBQ. Unlike other large companies, however, Greg Wetanson, his father, Herb, and his son, Stuart, remain closely involved in the day-to-day operations and run things as a family business. Thanks to this amiable atmosphere, “Most of the management and the chefs have been here for twenty plus years, ” said Dreni, who joined Tony’s shortly after it opened in the 1990s.
When the City of New York acquired this lot to house Engine 65 in 1895, clubs and residents around the area feared it would disturb the peace. Having calls since their very first night on the job, and as the first responder to Times Square, it became clear that the service was needed and soon became wildly appreciated. One of the firemen, Chris, told me this was something he had always wanted to do. “I love the camaraderie between the guys, ” he said, a theme that seems to reoccur throughout all Manhattan fire stations.