Riverhead Diner and Grill celebrates its 80th birthday

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine shares a proclomation at a celebration the Riverhead Diner and Grill’s 80th year.

There’s a lot of stories that can be told of the Riverhead Diner and Grill, the downtown staple that turned 80 years old this year.

And so to celebrate that milestone, a bunch of people got together on Tuesday and decided to tell those stories.

Not just stories about the Diner, but about Riverhead in general.

Diner owner and Liz Strebel and Richard Wines, who heads Riverhead Town’s landmarks preservation commission, put the event together.

Ms. Strebel said she got the idea last year when she was in Jamesport and a group of people were exchanging stories about the Elbow Room restaurant and other businesses in that hamlet. She enlisted the help of Mr. Wines in tracking down some of the Riverhead Diner’s history.

“Have a story night, it brings people together and makes them all feel good about where they live,” Mr.  Wines said.

And story night they had.

“This was what Riverhead was about,” Jerry Steiner, the owner of Allied Optical on West Main Street, recalled. “The Riverhead Grill, you came in here and you had real food, and when you left, you were so full. My grandfather used to meet me here five days a week.”

He said that nowadays, many restaurants just microwave food.

“We’ve evolved into quick food, corporate America,” he said. “But this place is like a throwback to what Riverhead used to be.”

Riverhead Councilman John Dunleavy recalled working as a police officer in the late 1960s and early 1970s in downtown Riverhead.

“We had a Main Street patrol,” he said. “We’d came in here for lunch and dinner. I always loved the meat loaf. We used to come down here, have dinner and then go across the street to direct traffic for the movie” at the Suffolk Theatre.

“Then, we’d have a a little break during the movie, we’d have coffee here and then come back when the movie was out to direct the traffic.”

Warren McKnight recalled moving into his first house in Wading River and staying up all night doing so.

When he and his wife were done, they went to breakfast at the Riverhead Diner, he said.

“It was the best eggs I ever had,” he recalled.

The diner was first owned by John Moustaka, a Greek immigrant who opened the diner on Oct. 9, 1932 in a pre-fabricated dining car, rather than in a newly built structure, and at the time it was located about 15 feet west of where it is now, Mr. Wines said. The diner was located on land owned by Fenninmore Meyer, who decided in the early 1950’s to build a department store on the diner’s original site, which facilitated its move to its current location.

Mr. Moustaka owned the business until 1961, when he sold it to Joe and Frank Strebel. In 1973, they sold it to their daughter, Liz, who still owns it today.

Ms. Strebel said she leased the business for about 12 years, took back ownership of the business in 2010, and reopened after a four-month hiatus and some renovations — and some red tape.

She said she found out it was much more difficult to reopen the business than it had been to keep it running for so many years due to county health department regulations and town building department requirements, but she said local officials were very helpful.

“This has been a tough journey over the last couple of years,” Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said to Ms. Strebel Tuesday. “My heart sank when I heard what you had to do to reopen it, but your’ perseverance and determination made it happen.”

Ms. Strebel said she’s now starting to get back many of the customers she had in the past, before she leased out the restaurant.

Former Riverhead police chief Joe Grattan, who spent 38 years in the town police department, said that at one time, there were 17 places to eat in downtown Riverhead.

Riverhead Councilman Jim Wooten, who grew up in Riverhead and lives nearby, said downtown used to have to four shoe stores, four men’s clothing shops, and three jewelry stores.

“There was no Route 58,” he said. “Main Street was the shopping mecca.”

He said he believes that can happen again in downtown Riverhead.

“Main Street USA is on its way back,” he said.

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