LOOKING BACK 2007: Regulars Mourn the Last Day of a Tribeca Diner

Sylvia Ponce hugs Paul McClaskey, a Socrates regular who was determined to stay to the very end. Photo: Carl Glassman/The Tribeca Trib

Mar. 13, 2017

Editors note: Many businesses have come and gone in Tribeca, but the diner Socrates, at the southwest corner of Hudson and Franklin streets, was one that would be missed more than most. On May 26, 2007, owner George Dourountoudakis closed his eatery after 24 years. The space was later turned into Tamarind, a sprawling, multi-level Indian restaurant. This story, which documents that last day, appeared in the June 2007 print edition of The Tribeca Trib and is one of an ongoing series from our archives.

It was only 10 a.m., but George Dourountoudakis’ troubled eyes told the story. It had been a morning of heartfelt hugs and kisses. Of promises to meet again. Of one too many long goodbyes.

“It’s hard to see people coming in and feeling sad,” said George, the owner of Socrates restaurant.

And as Bia Ayiotis and Sylvia Ponce, the diner’s two waitresses, ferried stacks of banana pancakes and plates of waffles topped with whipped cream and strawberries, they too were waylaid by the affections of customers.

It was one last Saturday morning for Socrates. After 24 years in Tribeca, the diner was closing, another victim of soaring rents. The leasing agent did not return calls and George did not want to disclose what the landlord was asking for his new lease.

“How much can you sell two eggs for? A bagel?” he asked rhetorically. “Two dollars?”

To those who didn’t know its charms, Socrates was just a diner; a long-time presence on the corner of Franklin and Hudson Streets. But to others, especially to the regulars, it may as well have been a second home.

On Saturday, May 26, it closed its doors for the last time, and customers cried.

“We felt like we were part of a family,” explained Alyssa Sadoff.

Sadoff and a friend were ensconced in a booth in the back room, just as they have been most every weekend morning for years. Their sons had just returned from their morning ritual: a trip to the other side of the counter where George gave them candy.

“The kids feel so comfortable here,” Sadoff said. “George and the waitresses know their names. The guys in the kitchen fix everything the way we like it. We’ve tried other places in the neighborhood over the years, but this is where we always end up.”

Leigh Crizoe, a long-time Hubert Street resident and owner of Tribeca Radio, took a stool, as usual, at the counter. Told by a reporter that this day was the diner’s last, he reacted with near disbelief.

“Is it true?’ Crizoe asked George. “Why are you closing?”

“The income no cover the expenses,” George said.

“George was the first person I approached for an ad. He didn’t know what Internet radio was,” Crizoe recalled, “but he said, ‘I want to help you to get started,’ and he bought commercials for a couple of months.”

When Socrates opened in the fall of 1983, only a few restaurants dotted Tribeca. There were small businesses in the neighboring lofts and thousands of city workers had jobs in office buildings that are now condominiums and co-ops.

George would not discuss the specifics, but he said business declined at the end of last year when his landlord emptied 99 Hudson, above the diner, to convert it into office space, which according to its sales brochure offers “boutique full floor opportunities.” Many of George’s customers had been tenants in the building.

“I knew this was going to happen one day with all the high-end stuff coming in,” mused Jon Gibson, a Socrates regular, seated for breakfast beneath the portrait of the restaurant’s namesake.

Sylvia stopped at his booth. “My friend Sylvia here is great,” he said as the waitress gave a pat to the back of his head. “She likes to check my haircut.”

Sylvia worked the 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift at Socrates for eight years. Seven months ago, she went into labor with her second child in the restaurant. Just six weeks later she was back at work.

“I’ll have to start over again,” she said. “I’ll go to the employment agency. Some customers said, ‘Call me if you need anything.’ I didn’t know people liked us so much. I’m very touched.”

Back at the counter, Elton Wells and Elizabeth Johnson stopped to shake George’s hand and say good-bye.

“We’re going to miss you guys,” Wells told him. “You have the best pancakes.”

“Here, you’re not just another credit card. You’re actually a person,” Wells said. “It was kind of like Cheers, except a diner. I literally don’t have any place to go now. It’s the last real place in Tribeca.”

Minutes later, Ronnie Moskowitz, director of The Washington Market School, and her husband, Mike Edison, strolled in for brunch and quickly heard  the news.

I’m close to tears,” she said. “George is a neighborhood treasure. We’ve taken the students to visit all the fancy restaurants and the one they remember the most is Socrates and learning how to make French fries.”

It was 11:30 now and the kitchen was already running out of food.

“What did we open for today?” Bia muttered when she was told there was no more sausage. She returned a moment later and shouted to the kitchen that bacon was okay.

“Socrates dies two times,” she an­nounced to no one in particular. “The se­c­ond time, it was money and real estate.”

Asked what she would do next, Bia said she did not know.

“Nothing is going to be like Socrates again,” she said. “It will just be a job. I will never put in the energy and hours like I did here.”

“It’s going to be depressing for a couple of days. I’ll start crying, maybe. But then,” she joked, “I’ll live the good life!”

George Dourountoudakis opened Socrates with his two brothers, Manny and Gus, in November 1983. Manny died in 1996. Soon afterward, Gus left for Massachusetts to start his own business. All three brothers had worked in restaurants after arriving from Greece—George as a busboy for more than a year, and then as a waiter. (His son, Kosta,  worked at Socrates as a cashier.)

George said his immediate plans are to vacation in Greece and visit his father, 95, and 77-year-old mother, who he hasn’t seen in 12 years. “I’m too young to retire,” he says. (He is 58.)

By early afternoon, the place was mostly empty. Pablo Kumar, the tall and lanky chef, seemed lost in thought as he stood, motionless, in the kitchen where he had worked since it first opened. A native of India, he started at Socrates as a dishwasher. George’s brother Gus taught him how to make soups, spinach pies, muffins and souvlaki. Kumar, a father of three, said he does not know where he will find his next job.

A couple of hours before closing time, a trio of postal workers sat down at a booth for a late lunch—just as they had done for the past 11 years.

“We always sit in the same place and we always order the same dish,” said Gee Gee Gaines. “This year it’s the Turkey Burger Deluxe. Last year it was the Chicken Cobb Salad.” Sometimes, she said, she varies her order, depending on which chef is cooking that day. “One of them has more oomph,” she explained.

The phone rang, as it had a million times before, but this time Bia looked at George, and for a moment no one picked up. Finally, George lifted the receiver

“Hello, how are you?” he said brightly, as if this was a day like any other. “What do you want? Talk to me.”

Paul McClaskey had finished his lunch long before. Now he just sat alone in his booth, determined to stay to the end.

“I know it’s a reality. There will never be a Socrates again, but I can’t accept it,” he said. “My sons literally grew up here. Their children come here. I was one of the first people to eat here. I’m going to be the last one to leave.”

It was 4:30, half an hour to go. George and Bia turned their attention to packing.

“This is the number one,” said George, removing the picture of Socrates from the wall. He then placed it carefully into the trunk of his car. Cash from the day’s take was divvied up, the freezer and refrigerator cleared out and the food distributed among the employees. George’s son Kosta pulled the cereal  boxes from the shelves and handed them to a delivery man.

Bia began to cry.

“The time is coming up,” George said. He shut off the kitchen light, killed the Muzak, and went around the counter to remove the two framed photographs behind the register: one of John F. Kennedy, Jr., a regular until his death, and one of George’s late brother, Manny.

Bia and Sylvia embraced tightly, both in tears. “Good luck to both of us,” Bia said.

McClaskey, still seated in his booth, got a hug from Sylvia, too.

“I love you, Sylvia,” he said.

“I love you, too, Paul.”

One by one, they headed for the door, and then for home.



Remembering Socrates and 'First Time I Saw John John There'

Thank you for this touching article about Socrates. I ate there almost every day and miss it every day. I remember the first time I saw John John there. I entered the restaurant, and saw this very handsome man at the counter. It took a moment for me to recognize him, but when I did, I wheeled around, ran out of the restaurant and home to call my mother in Miami to tell her. Subsequently, I noticed that John John always had a huge breakfast, sometimes including "Special K."