The New Munson Diner: It’s all in the family
LIBERTY, NY — There’s a vintage-looking diner overlooking Main Street in Liberty, and it’s been there for a while. The diner was relocated from its original location on 11th Avenue and 49th Street in Manhattan to Sullivan County, where it’s been perched on the hill since 2005. Since then, the business has cycled through a few owners, carrying with it memories of the past and consistent hope for the future.
Manufactured in 1945 by the Kullman Dining Car Company of Lebanon, New Jersey, the building has a riveted steel frame and exterior of stainless steel and porcelain enamel. If it looks familiar to passersby, it could be because the diner was used as a location for the 1970s television series “Kojak,”’ starring Telly Savalas, in American Express commercials, and as the “alternate universe” diner in the classic “Bizarro Jerry” episode of “Seinfeld” in the ‘90s.
A 1941 New York Times article described the diner in its Manhattan prime as a place where “men and women in evening dress swap[ped] jokes with men in overalls.” But by 2004, the diner was facing demolition. Then 25-year-old Jeremy Gorelick bought the restuarant along with a group of investors from this area, hoping that trucking the entire structure to Liberty would help drive the Catskills toward a new era. The restaurant was boosted onto a flatbed truck and moved 90 miles west, here.
Even with a storied pedigree, the Munson Diner struggled to take hold in Liberty and actually lay dormant for two years, until Christos Kritikos drove by while visiting the county from his home in the Bronx. “I had a limousine service in New York for 20 years,” Kritikos said a few weeks ago, “but when Uber came along, it all but put me and New York City’s taxi cabs out of business. I wasn’t sure what direction my life would take… I visited a monastery here in the Catskills where a conversation with one of the monks suggested that my life was about to change. It was then that I saw the diner and knew that I had to buy it. I believe that it was meant to be.
“It just made sense. It’s hard to explain, but I just felt that it was kismet. After a hasty conversation with my family and a few friends, I purchased it on the spot. I had no idea of the diner’s history.”
Once the decision was made, Christos and his son John, set to making the diner their own, first christening it the New Munson and then digging in their heels and sprucing the place up. “It wasn’t easy,” John recalled. “The place had been empty and not well taken care of, but we had faith that with hard work and determination the diner could be revived to its original glory. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
After investing in new booths, tables and display cases, the family opened the place for business a little more than a year ago. That’s when a startling revelation took place. “I found out that an uncle of mine had owned the diner for 45 years,” Christos said. “I had no idea, but it suddenly all made sense.”
“Believe it or not,” John added, “my father had dreamed that something wonderful was about to happen a week before he set foot in the diner. He had told me about the premonition, but we had no clue what it meant.” John said he thinks that it’s his father’s “old-school” way of doing business that has kept the diner running. “Yes,” Christos chimed in. “Old school is the best. In Greek hospitality, if you have guests in the house, you feed them.” Christos is quick to point out, also, that the place is incredibly clean. “You can eat off my floors,” he said, of the gleaming kitchen. Taking advantage of the location, Kritikos calls on local resources for much of restaurant’s supplies, and the baked goods are from a variety of regional purveyors. “It all happened so quickly,” son John said of the change in lifestyle. “I wasn’t sure where my life was headed, but my dad led the way. The community has been so supportive, and we felt welcomed immediately, from the moment we opened the doors.”
Overlooking the once-bustling Main Street, the diner’s view from Lake Street in Liberty evokes the town’s glorious past.
“Liberty means freedom,” Christos said with a smile, “and the diner has given us not only freedom, but a new lease on life. We treat everyone like family—and the people here,” he said with a wave of his hand, “are the best. I love everybody here. The community has embraced us, and we’ve only just begun.” Plans for the future include an expanded parking lot, and special events that celebrate life in the Catskills, with an eye on community service. “We’re here to support each other,” John said, “and our staff is amazing. It took a while,” he added, “to find the right people, but we’re getting there.” As for the town itself, Kritikos is enthusiastic. “Everything old is new again, isn’t that what they say? Liberty is on the rise, you’ll see.” As for what the future holds, John is in agreement with his father. “I believe our journey is already written,” he said, “and the New Munson Diner was meant to be. Try the cheesecake,” he said with a grin, “and welcome to the family!”