For nearly as long as they can remember, brothers Anthony and Tommy DiStefano knew they would own a restaurant together one day.
“We’ve been in the diner business our whole lives,” Anthony, 44, said.
The Merrick natives have spent much of their careers managing diners up and down the East Coast, so when the opportunity arose to purchase Valley Stream’s Valbrook Diner from its previous owner five years ago, they jumped at the chance.
“I knew it was a staple in the neighborhood,” said Anthony, who had worked there as a night manager since 2011. “I knew the staff. I knew some of the customers already. I knew what the business needed to be.”
But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Valbrook, like so many businesses, started losing money, and the DiStefanos decided to close. “We tried to do takeout, we tried to do delivery, but you know, it just wasn’t making any business,” Anthony said. But he and his older brother had a plan.
The Valbrook has operated continuously as a diner for more than 50 years. Since they purchased it, the brothers had wanted to undertake a major renovation, and with the business shuttered, the timing, Anthony said, “made sense.” Now, more than six months later, with a complete reconstruction of the building’s interior, Valbrook is nearly ready to open in the coming weeks, and is awaiting final inspection approval by the village.
While the diner retains the same layout, including its signature atrium area with its curved windowed wall and ceiling, virtually every surface has been redone. The remodel, the brothers said, is a vow that the Valbrook will continue for decades.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Anthony said. “We plan to be here for the rest of our lives. This is our livelihood, and we want the community and the neighborhood of Valley Stream to know that the Valbrook Diner is going to be here for the next 50 years.”
As part of a family of restaurant owners, the brothers got their start in the business at a young age. Anthony spent most of his career, roughly 17 years, as general manager at his uncle’s restaurant, the Kings Plaza Diner, in Brooklyn, while Tommy, 47, worked as general manager at Metro 29, their cousin’s diner, in Arlington, Va.
Looking for work after the Kings Plaza closed in 2010, the younger DiStefano joined the staff at Valbrook, where he met longtime owner Bill Tsempelis. “He was a one-man team,” Anthony recalled when he met him. “He was well known throughout the area.”
Around that time, Tommy had moved up to Queens, where he was working as general manager at the Georgia Diner, and the two decided to follow through with their dream of restaurant ownership and offered to purchase the Valbrook. Tsempelis, however, wasn’t ready.
Tsempelis began as manager at the diner in 1974. He was 24 at the time, and five years later, he purchased it from the owner before him. Initially, he ran the kitchen and his wife, the cash register. Over the decades he became intimately acquainted with the customers, some of whom he saw every day.
“The Valbrook was my house,” he recalled. “All my life I was there.”
But as the years went by, Tsempelis started to feel his age and decided to ask the brothers if they were still interested in purchasing the Valbrook. Although no longer its owner, he still visits once, sometimes twice a week, and sits with the DiStefanos for coffee. With the renovation, he said, he wishes them the best of luck.
After purchasing the Valbrook, the two said they made only minor changes. They purchased a new cappuccino machine, and, Anthony added, they put eggs Benedict on the menu.
“Basically the only thing new we did from the beginning was bring in our personalities,” Tommy said, describing how the two often engage in friendly one-upmanship. Until the renovation, they kept a calendar in the diner basement with two markers: one green and one red. On days when Tommy won an argument, he marked it in green. The red marker, Anthony joked, sometimes collected dust.
“Being partners is hard,” Tommy said, noting he and his brother occasionally butt heads. When things get particularly heated between the two, they resort to a safe word: yaya.
“It’s grandmother in Greek, because our grandmother would never want us to fight,” he explained. “So we separate for a half-hour and come back with cooler heads, we figure it out, and 95 percent of the time he apologizes.”
His brother jokingly agreed, “That’s usually how it goes down.”
But always, their goal, the two said, is to make the Valbrook a comfortable place to spend time. “We always said when we were kids, if we did this together, we wanted this to be an extension of our living room,” Tommy said. “This is our house.”
The renovations have brought a computerized ordering system, a new phone system to handle deliveries and touchless bathroom appliances. With the reopening, much of the diner’s original staff have said they will return, the brothers said.
“They’re excited to come back,” Anthony said. “They missed the customers.”
Although the pandemic is ongoing, he said he looks forward to welcoming his longtime customers back. “Everything’s brand-new, clean, and we’re looking forward to having everyone who’s been here the past 40 years back again.”
Echoing his brother’s sentiment, Tommy said, “We look forward to entertaining you in our living room again.”