The old-school lunch counter is undergoing a rebirth. There’s the nostalgia factor to be sure, but the retro luncheonette design makes smart business sense in an ever-challenging restaurant economy:
- The format suits all dayparts—from breakfast to late-night.
- The counter-service setup can help limit payroll since one server can handle many diners in a small space.
- Lunch counters are the ideal venue for riffs on craveable, indulgent comfort foods, a perennial consumer favorite, especially in politically turbulent times.
From a luncheonette that GQ just named one of the Best New Restaurants in America to another that’s reviving a Civil Rights-era landmark, here’s a look at some of the newcomers to this retro design.
1. Soup, with a side of philanthropy
The Rooster Soup Co. luncheonette from MCOs Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook (which just won that high praise from GQ) donates all its profits to a Philadelphia organization that provides food, counseling and other services to the city’s homeless and low-income communities. Solomonov and Cook are also behind Federal Donuts, a fried chicken concept with seven units. It tosses out enough chicken bones to make about 2,000 bowls of chicken soup each week, according to Eater, so that’s why the two settled on a soup focus for the charitable lunch-counter endeavor.
2. Bring history to life
Nashville's Woolworth on 5th's lunch counter isn’t slated to open until near the year’s end, following a multimillion dollar building restoration. The original Woolworth’s lunch counter was the site of protests by black student groups during the 1960s against the chain’s whites-only policy. It was where now-U.S. Rep. John Lewis was arrested for the first time, says TomKats Hospitality owner Tom Morales, the owner behind several other Nashville concepts, who is restoring the lunch counter.
During the restoration, crews have found signs for whites-only bathrooms and drinking fountains. “We’re very sensitive about it,” Morales says. “We want to recognize it, but not turn it into a museum … You can’t pretend it didn’t happen.”
The 80-foot lunch counter will be fully restored and the menu will focus on soul food and soda fountain beverages, including ones with alcohol. The building’s basement will be transformed into a performance venue.
3. Play up local, seasonal ingredients
Located inside an old train caboose, the lunch counter at Dad’s Luncheonette in Half Moon Bay, Calif., specializes in a short menu of local, organic lunch favorites. There are two sandwiches (one hamburger, one veggie), housemade chips, macaroni and cheese, a simple salad, daily soup and dessert. Scott Clark, a former fine-dining chef, is behind this casual concept.
4. Drum up excitement via crowdfunding
City Counter, an art deco-inspired lunch counter in San Francisco, is slated to open next month, if owner Harper Matheson’s Kickstarter campaign is a success. (As of this writing, she has raised $20,860 of the $28,000 necessary to fund the project.) Construction is complete—the Kickstarter funds will help finish building the lunch counter. The concept will serve sandwiches and salads.
5. Add a retail element
Pittsburgh Lunch & Superette in Seattle, which opened in February, focuses on breakfast and lunch with a seasonal menu of soups, salads and sandwiches that are available to eat in or for takeout, according to Eater. The operation also features a small selection of produce and pantry staples.
The lunch counter’s owner, Una Kim, previously ran seafood bistro The Faerie Queene at the same location, but is hoping this will be a better fit for the neighborhood. “It’s rough out there,” Kim tells Eater. “You have to roll with the punches, let go of ego. It’s part of the future of restaurants, I think, to make things interesting, to incorporate technology, delivery, retail, art and more.”