With its aqua-blue stools and cups of coffee that flow endlessly from its gleaming urns, EJ’s Luncheonette has shined as an Upper East Side institution since it opened nearly 30 years ago, and continues to shine even after hardships caused by COVID-19.
As co-owner, Robert Eby, said by phone from his New Jersey home, not many restaurants stay open for three decades, especially after a global pandemic. In New York City alone, as many as a thousand establishments have shuttered since the virus first hit a year and a half ago.
EJ’s has managed to persevere, however, due to its tireless employees. Whether it’s Eby’s daughter greeting patrons as they enter the wide-windowed restaurant, the young waiter, Ricky, setting down plates with a smile, or the restaurant veteran, Kazy, refilling empty mugs, the EJ’s team succeeds because they emanate a joy not always seen in the restaurant industry.
Initially opening on the Upper West Side in 1990 – a time when Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues teemed with brunch spots – EJ’s distinguished itself by subverting tradition. “We wanted to do a breakfast, lunch and dinner comfort food kind of place that offered home-style cooking,” Eby said of the idea behind the restaurant, which he owns with industry stalwart, Jay Silver.
“[EJ’s filled] a niche somewhere in between a greasy spoon diner, which we were not, and a bistro,” Eby said. “We never served white bread but we served challah bread. We didn’t serve whole wheat bread but we served seven-grain bread. We didn’t serve fried chicken but we served skinless fried chicken. Everything was fresh, nothing frozen, and everything was geared towards freshness and value.”
On February 11th, 1992, Eby unveiled an EJ’s location across town on Third Avenue and 73rd Street on the slab of concrete that used to be the site of Rusty’s – the popular barbecue spot owned by former Mets power hitter, Rusty Staub.
“I really put my personality into the restaurant,” the soft-spoken Eby said, reflecting on the restaurant’s early days. The owner said he spent 20 years working the door and building his customer base, adding that his was a true hands-on approach.
“[That] is really what it takes in order to maintain consistency in food product and the service,” said Eby.
EJ’s consequently bustled: 20-somethings often waiting in lines that sprawled out the door, eager to nestle into the warm booths and survey a menu that included such quintessentially American meals as a hamburger and a milkshake.
Eby, a restaurateur who worked his way up in the industry, didn’t want the space to be Johnny Rockets kitsch, however, and so sought the expertise of his wife in conjuring EJ’s authentic aura.
An interior designer, Patricia Eby traded the red, 1950s-like decor of the original layout with the darker-toned feel of a true 1940s luncheonette. With its white counter, silver-lined seats and lamp-posted walls, the result is artfully crafted. [S1] It shuttles visitors to mid-century America before returning them to the present, overhead speakers playing rock songs and blue plates of blackened salmon wraps landing on tables.
It’s the power of family, however, that finally enlivens EJ’s and marks its endurance. In his mind, the 65 employees he oversees certainly qualify as family. “The restaurant business is traditionally a very transient type of place for people to work,” he said, attributing his ability to keep some of the same employees for 20 years to the business’s consistency.
When the coronavirus struck Manhattan in March 2020 and restaurants were forced to stop indoor dining, though, some of those long-time employees simply weren’t able to work anymore. Still, Eby along with EJ’s manager, Richard Jurmark, stayed open throughout the entire pandemic and made countless deliveries.
Not content to stand by, however, Eby also immediately teamed up with the globally renowned chef, José Andrés, of World Central Kitchen and he and his staff joined in the relief efforts of the pandemic. EJ’s brought as many as 250 meals a day to the several hospitals of the Upper East Side.
This past May, the establishment fully reopened and, with staff taking all necessary safety precautions, the restaurant has resumed offering all of its cherished items.
The pandemic aside, as Eby said, EJ’s still flourishes. Crunchy French toast pancakes keep flipping, coffee flows, and, with the ebullience of Eby and the EJ’s team, the blue palace will continue to glow.
“[EJ’s filled] a niche somewhere in between a greasy spoon diner, which we were not, and a bistro ... Everything was fresh, nothing frozen, and everything was geared towards freshness and value,” Robert Eby.