First published in The Record, June 1, 2017
Regulars say farewell to Paterson's Egg Platter Diner
Chicken Little sat at the counter inside the Egg Platter Diner and tried not to cry.
“Don’t cry, Chicken Little!” said Adela Perez, a waitress.
Chicken Little sat next to his mother, Marlene Garcia, who named him Paul Vasconcellos. She tried not to cry, too, but it was hard.
Outside this diner, at Paterson's southern edge, nobody calls Vasconcellos “Chicken Little,” his high school nickname, anymore. Outside this diner, few people remember how Vasconcellos and his good-looking younger brother Williams used to sit for hours in the booth by the door and flirt with the Egg Platter’s waitresses.
Outside this diner, his brother said, few people remember that Williams Vasconcellos was murdered three years ago in a fight with a friend over money. As Perez bused away the remains of what may be the Egg Platter Diner’s final breakfast rush, Paul Vasconcellos felt the memories of his brother slip a little further away.
“I think about him sitting here. This was the spot where we always hung out,” said Vasconcellos, 36. “This place is part of me, part of my family. It hurts to see it go.”
After seven decades, Paterson’s Egg Platter Diner closed its doors on Wednesday. The Dermatis family has owned the diner’s stainless-steel building since 1977, but it never owned the land. Now a developer plans to spend $5 million to replace the diner with a four-story building, with retail on the ground floor and apartments above.
The old diner might still be saved. At 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, Paterson’s mayor, Joey Torres, walked into the Egg Platter. He shook hands with every customer, then walked into the back room and sat down next to Spiro Dermatis, one of the diner’s co-owners. Torres made his pitch: a long-term lease on an unspecified plot of city-owned land if Dermatis agrees to pay to move the building and continue operating it as a diner.
Dermatis said he’ll consider it.
“We’re weighing all our options,” he said.
21 Egg Plate Varieties
The little diner, as yet unmoved from the corner of Crooks and Getty avenues, was always easy to underestimate. That’s because it is tiny, and festooned with silly signs. The one on the roof boasts “21 Egg Plate Varieties.” The one on the corner describes the diner’s odd hours, from 10 p.m. to 3 p.m. (Dermatis changed the opening hour to 6:30 a.m. about four years ago.)
The sign over the grill describes different “Egg Platter Novelties” variously as an “omelet,” an “omelett” and an “omelette.”
“Where else can you go to get three eggs for $3.95, and coffee for 75 cents?” said Joann Joseph, 40, a night-shift crisis counselor at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson.
They cared that the home fries were never spicy or burnt.
“This is the only place I’ll order home fries. They’re perfect,” said Mike Groh, 50, who took a three-hour round-trip bus ride from his home in Hoboken every two weeks just to visit the Egg Platter. “Anyplace else, I just get the french fries.”
They cared that this old place felt less like a diner and more like a family home. Bob Fierro first visited when his family moved to a house one block away in 1966, when the place still had its original owners and name, Geier’s City Line Diner. He was there that day in 1977 when members of the Dermatis family reopened it as the Egg Platter. And he was there Wednesday, to see them close it.
In between he brought his groomsmen here for lunch on Aug. 19, 1984, hours before his wedding. He came in the early hours of the morning, when the diner’s red neon was the only “Open” sign glowing in town.
“At night there was nothing for nobody in Paterson,” said Fierro, 54.
He sat and watched the rotating cast of customers, and quickly made sense of the diner’s odd hours. At 10 p.m., late-shift factory workers stopped in for a sleepy meal. At 2 a.m. the “jerks from the bars” rolled in, Fierro said, arguing and telling jokes. At 4 a.m. they cleared out, and at 4:30 their seats were taken by the early-shift factory workers. By 8 a.m. they were replaced by politicians and businessmen.
“You’d always see the mayor and the police chief in here,” Fierro said. “The whole place flipped like a switch.”
A devoted, loving following
A place like the Egg Platter Diner inspires devotion among the people who love it, and on Wednesday that love showed itself in myriad ways. The diner has been packed with people ever since Dermatis announced the closing last week on Facebook.
“It’s bittersweet, because you see people you haven’t seen in years,” he said.
Adela Perez started working at the diner when she was 20 years old, and she ate anything she pleased. Over time her meals grew healthier — now she favors an egg white omelette with spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms and onions.
When she heard news that the diner might close, she indulged in an old favorite.
“Yesterday I had a waffle with ice cream to celebrate this place,” said Perez, now 36.
Bob Ogorzaly’s tribute was rather more involved. He grew up in Paterson, and first visited the Egg Platter with his parents when he was 6. When Ogorzaly, 51, who now lives in Charlottesville, Va., heard the diner might close, he rented a brand-new Chevrolet Impala. He woke up at midnight and drove seven hours to be among the first customers through the door Wednesday morning.
Ogorzaly ordered his traditional breakfast: two eggs, home fries, French toast, ham and white toast with butter. His feast arrived on three separate plates, which he smothered in syrup and salt.
“I’ve eaten a lot of eggs here,” Ogorzaly said, “and I don’t think they ever messed up an egg. Not one.”