A diner on Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow welcomed customers for over 30 years before it closed last spring.
The Empress Diner announced in a post on its Facebook page last May 2 that its current owners, Mike and Dan Panagatos, were “moving on.” Soon afterward, Mike told the Herald that he planned to devote more time to his other business, Burgerology, in Huntington, and Dan said he would retire to spend more time with his family and his girlfriend.
Next month, however, residents will be able to resume hosting business meetings over burgers and shakes, treating their dates to breakfast for dinner or stopping by after a football game at East Meadow High at the renamed Grand Stage Diner.
The new owners are George Argyris, 42, and his brother Nick, 40, who were raised in Manhattan and now live in Queens. They have spent the past eight months renovating and redecorating the diner, and plan to open sometime in February.
The Argyris brothers grew up in the restaurant business and, with their father, Tom, managed the Stage Door Delicatessen in Manhattan, which had two locations, both of which had closed by 2016.
“We have a big celebrity following,” said George, showing the Herald a wall of photos of the brothers with actors and athletes at one Stage Door or the other. They named sandwiches after their notable customers. “If anyone famous comes here,” George added, “we’ll do that for them.”
The cost of running a business in Manhattan began outweighing the benefits, the brothers said, and they wanted to move to Long Island. They looked for restaurants that were on the market, and found the Empress.
Mike Panagatos said that his main condition for selling it was that it would remain a diner. “I’ve heard about their restaurant and that it was high-volume,” he said of the Argyris brothers, “and we wanted experienced operators to take over.”
Mike’s father, Sam, immigrated to the U.S. in 1953 after a series of earthquakes devastated Cephalonia, the Greek island where he was raised. He and his brother, Spiro, moved to Newark, N.J., where they started families and co-owned a restaurant called the Broadway Diner. In 1967 they moved to East Meadow and bought the Empress.
Tom Argyris, George and Nick’s father, also grew up in Greece, and came to the U.S. in 1972. “He came here and started out how every Greek person starts out: washing dishes,” George said. “Then he opened his own place.”
When Mike Panagatos was 10, he started washing dishes at the Empress, and Dan soon joined him. Mike learned the diner’s operations, working with the chefs and eventually learning to cook. Before he graduated from East Meadow High School, he had learned how to prepare every item on the menu.
“You have to start somewhere,” Nick Argyris said, adding that he and George followed similar paths before taking over their father’s business.
“I know that they know what they’re getting into, so to speak,” Mike Panagatos said. “My father immigrated from Greece and worked very hard. I know they learned European work ethics from their father.”
George Argyris said he and his brother planned to keep many of the diner’s traditional menu items, while bringing in some of their own, curing their own pastrami, corned beef and brisket. The Grand Stage Diner will also feature a full bar, with Manhattan-style cocktails made with fresh fruit, a special desert menu for kids and a weekend brunch menu.
The restaurant will also offer a catering room for parties of up to 120 people. The East Meadow Chamber of Commerce has already reserved the space for an upcoming meeting, Argyris said, adding that the brothers are new members.
Chamber President Michael Levy was a regular at the Empress, overseeing chamber meetings and networking with clients. “When I saw what it looks like so far,” he said of its new iteration, “I was very impressed.”
George Argyris added that he and Nick intend to join the East Meadow Kiwanis, and to host fundraisers. The brothers said that the community has been very welcoming, with locals inquiring about the new business.
“If anyone is looking for work,” he said, “just come in and ask for Nick or George.”