The end of an era for an East Meadow business

The Empress Diner is under new ownership

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After more than three decades, the Empress Diner, in East Meadow, has new owners.

The business’s Facebook page announced in a post on May 2 that its current owners were “moving on.” Soon afterward, dozens of patrons responded, bidding farewell and sharing their memories of the establishment.

Initially, media outlets and dialogue on social media stated that the diner was closing. But co-owner Mike Panagatos, 58, of East Meadow, cleared up the confusion and shared with the Herald his experience at the diner and what its patrons could expect in the near future.

Bidding farewell to a family business

In addition to co-owning the Empress, Panagatos, an active member of the East Meadow Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis, also owns Burgerology in Huntington Station, which he bought just over a year ago. “I always wanted to own a burger place,” he said, adding, however, that owning two businesses grew overwhelming. He knew it was time to sell the Empress, he said, when his brother Dan, the diner’s co-owner, decided he wanted to retire.

“There are a lot of sacrifices made in this business,” Dan said, explaining that he, Mike and their parents, Sam and Sophia, worked hard at the diner, but were unable to celebrate holidays together. Dan lives with his girlfriend, Vivian De Jesus, whom he has been dating for 20 years, and he said he looked forward to spending more time with her.

Mike agreed with Dan about the rigors of owning a diner, and recalled their father once saying, “Why would you go into a field where you have to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, [and] every holiday?”

As a child, Mike often worked with his father at the diner to earn spare cash. His family couldn’t afford to send him to summer camp or buy him expensive toys, he explained. To him, the diner became “Camp Empress.”

Mike wrote about the diner’s beginnings in an article published in an issue of Great Restaurants magazine that focused on Long island eateries. 

A business grows in East Meadow

Sam Panagatos immigrated to the U.S. in 1953 after a series of earthquakes devastated Cephalonia, the Greek island on which he was raised. Sam and his brother Spiro moved to Newark, N.J., where they started families and co-owned a restaurant called the Broadway Diner.

Mike said that segregation was a foreign concept to his father, who served guests and employed people of all ethnicities. Because of that, the business remained untouched by violent protests that erupted in Newark in the mid-1960s, but the experience was enough to convince Sam to move to East Meadow with his wife and children. They purchased the Empress Diner in 1967.

“I still remember my first meal at the Empress Diner,” Mike said. His father ordered him an “elephant,” and he thought for a moment that Long Islanders ate elephant meat. Instead, this was his first lesson in diner lingo: Children’s menu items had themes — animals, cartoon characters, sports teams.

When Mike was 10, he started washing dishes, and Dan soon joined him. Mike learned the diner’s operations, worked with the chefs and eventually learned to cook. Before he graduated from East Meadow High School, he had learned how to prepare every item on the menu.

The Panagatos family also co-owned a Manhattan restaurant called Paddy’s Clam Bar, and, when Mike was 20, one of its managers left. “Here I was, 20 years old, and I was thrown in the fire,” he recalled.

Soon afterward, Mike got his formal culinary education at the New York Restaurant School, and completed an externship at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. When he graduated, he came back to the Empress and worked as its menu developer before his father retired and he and Dan took over.

A new chapter

“One thing that we’ll miss the most is the people,” Dan said, recalling regular patrons who would cut class in high school to go to the diner, bring their first dates there and, eventually, bring their children there. “We grew up with these customers,” he said.

Two former devoted customers are now the Empress’s new owners. When George Argyris, 41, had his first meal at the diner with his brother Nick, 40, he said, they fell in love with it.

The Argyrises grew up in the restaurant business, and their father, Tom, managed the Stage Door Delicatessen in Manhattan, which they also co-owned. The business wasn’t far from Broadway, and many of their customers were actors who had just finished shows. But the cost of running a business in Manhattan started to outweigh the benefits, the brothers said, and they wanted to move to Long Island. They began looking for restaurants that were on the market, and found the Empress.

Until further notice, the diner is closed for renovations. George Argyris said that they plan to keep its traditions, while bringing in some of their own, such as curing their own pastrami and corned beef. They project to re-open the diner this fall.