Many things come to mind when thinking of the good, old-fashioned American diner: bacon and eggs, hash browns, pancakes, waffles, grilled cheese sandwiches, and lots and lots of coffee.
There’s certainly all that and more on tap at the City Limits Diner on Central Avenue, but ask head chef Peter Assue what’s different about this well-known eatery and he’ll tell you that freshly created dishes, including the diner’s signature chicken noodle soup, together with homemade products like jam preserves and freshly baked breads, are what make this place so special.
Assue, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, should know. He’s been working there since 1996. Hired by the Livanos family, Assue supervises a staff of 40 cooks and is also responsible for ordering supplies and introducing his many signature dishes to the menu.
The landmark diner has been at the corner of Central Avenue and Route 119 since 1985, and was known previously as the Livanos Restaurant. In 1994, the owners changed the name to City Limits Diner, and in 2002, another similar establishment, bearing the same name, opened in Stamford, Conn.
The family runs a total of seven restaurants in the tri-state area, including three in Manhattan: Abboccato Ristorante, Molyvos and Oceana; Burger DeLuxe in Wayne, N.J.; the two City Limits diners in White Plains and Stamford; and their latest venture, Moderne Barn in Armonk.
Nick Livanos, the son of founder John, a Greek immigrant, recalled that when his father began in the diner business, he chose to reduce the size of the traditional diner menus and refrained from using canned food. The meticulousness with which John Livanos built his restaurant empire can still be seen today, especially when he pays a visit to the City Limits kitchen to check that it’s fully stocked, noted Assue lightheartedly.
The senior Livanos is especially passionate about maintaining the freshness of the fish served at City Limits. Perhaps it’s because he grew up near the ocean and watched his father and uncles, all commercial fishermen, bring in their catch each day.
That love of fresh fish was recreated in his highly-rated Manhattan restaurant, Oceana, which opened in 1992, but at the City Limits diner, fish also takes center stage. The smoked salmon that comes out of the restaurant’s smokehouse is an item that both Livanos and Assue are particularly proud of.
On a weekly basis, the diner serves up a variety of breakfast dishes featuring the smoked salmon, including a house smoked Atlantic salmon breakfast specialty, served with toasted bagel, cream cheese, red onion and tomato, two different types of omelet, also featuring smoked Atlantic salmon; and a City Limits starter made of house smoked Atlantic salmon, together with warm potato mushroom cake, hard boiled eggs and tzatziki, a Greek appetizer.
In creating the City Limits diner, Livanos, who first graduated with a degree in management from Adelphi University and later studied at the Culinary Institute of America, said his father established a place that “reminds everyone of what they grew up with.”
But that doesn’t mean the fare is old-fashioned. Far from it. “I like to think we offer good, wholesome food with a progressive twist,” said Livanos. That means all of the breads baked by Assue’s wife and pastry chef, Tracy Kamperdyk-Assue, also a CIA graduate, are organic, and other items, including the preserves, are also made from scratch.
What makes City Limits tick, however, is Assue’s fearlessness in the kitchen. “Peter loves challenges,” said Livanos. Even if the restaurant has been offering a dish for some time, Livanos said Assue will ask, “How can we do it better?” An example is the house-made turkey pastrami sandwich that customers will find on the menu under the heading, “Great Sandwiches.” The turkey used in the sandwich is first marinated in wine. Besides creating a truly outstanding sandwich, Assue said he is more concerned about making a dish that is healthy.
Assue believes that City Limits is more like a fine restaurant disguised as a diner. To be sure, this is a place where a tuna fish sandwich will contain real yellow fin tuna and nothing less than Grade A pure maple syrup is served on the pancakes. Livanos said the diner’s reputation as a fine eatery is based on the ingredients that are used in every dish and the effort that goes into making them. “Ninety-five percent of the food we serve here is fresh, and it takes a lot of effort and time to preserve freshness and cook it the right way.”
In March 2012, the diner will close for approximately a month and a half for what Livanos said is a much-needed lift. “The place is tired and its infrastructure, including the kitchen, needs to be redone,” he said. The diner, which currently has a ’50s look, will re-open bearing a ’60s feel, indicative of the current spate of TV shows that are focused on that era, explained Livanos. That’s about all that will change, however, because the menu will continue to remain the same, he noted.
Both Livanos and his siblings are totally committed to this burgeoning family business, and that includes continuing the traditions that their father put in place many years ago, skills that helped create and then sustain a string of successful restaurants. Referring to the hundreds of other diners that are scattered throughout the tri-state area, Livanos said, “It would be easy to do what other places have done, but then we would be just like any other restaurant.”