Flight of the Flamingo

How a legendary diner became “Hip & Delicious”

If you’re like most folks who haunt the commercial area down by Exchange Place, you witnessed the closing of the old Flamingo diner a few years ago and then the long interregnum when it was boarded up, with old newspapers and notices plastered on the windows.
A few months ago, it was reborn as “The City Diner,” with the tagline “Hip & Delicious.” Gone is the old pink, geographically challenged flamingo sign. Gone, the classic all-night-diner gestalt, with plates of burgers and eggs and veal parm balanced on the strong, outstretched arms of the Flamingo’s middle-aged wait staff.
Andreas Diakos opened the diner at 31 Montgomery St. on the corner of Greene in 1968. A Greek immigrant, he was 16 when he came to the United States, finding work as a busboy across the street from the Flamingo. In a garish affirmation of the American Dream, he was a restaurant owner by age 20.

For years, the Flamingo withstood an onslaught of eminent-domain challenges. In late June 2002, the city threatened to acquire the property and demolish the 1848, five-story building, so that they could ease traffic by widening Greene Street.
Why widen the street? This was a time when the area, which borders historic Paulus Hook, was being developed with high-rise office towers and condos. Specifically, the tallest building in New Jersey, the 42-story Goldman Sachs building, was going up just blocks away. It would bring some 6,000 lunchtime patrons to the burgeoning Jersey City financial district.
Diakos blew off the $1.5 million he was offered by the city for the property. Patrons pointed to the restaurant’s reasonable prices that allowed senior citizens and poor people to get a decent meal out. And Diakos’s three high-powered daughters, one an HBO executive, threw their weight behind the effort to save their family business.
By April 2003, a compromise had been struck. Instead of widening the street, city officials agreed to make it one-way. The building and its beloved neighborhood diner had been spared the wrecking ball.
“We grew up in the diner,” says Kalliope, the daughter who is an HBO executive. “The whole family worked there. My father came from Greece and worked there his whole life, seven days a week. We would have breakfast with him there. He was there for 43 years. It was his passion, and this area was in his heart.”
By February 2007, the property was on the market for $4 million. But Diakos did not sell it then. That happened about two years ago, when Diakos sold the diner to the Giakoumatos family, Greek- Americans, who are also in the restaurant business. At press time, brothers Nick, Mike, and Lefty were getting ready for the grand opening.
Lefty was on the phone ordering everything from anchovies to lentil soup, sometimes in Greek, sometimes in English.
The place looks like an upgraded diner, with a beautiful new bar, and that’s just what the family wants. “It’s a diner with a nice look,” Nick says. In addition to the usual diner food, you can get a kosher Cuban sandwich, chicken chili fries, 12 beers on tap, and a latte or cappuccino. So, yes, things have changed, but some things never do.
“You can get casual, trendy comfort food any time of day at diner prices, not restaurant prices,” Nick says. Hence, the “Hip & Delicious” label.
And the brothers are happy to be in downtown JC.”It’s come a long way,” Nick says. “It’s a vibrant, alive location.”—Kate Rounds


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