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Sean Kirst: For new Larkinville diner, a blessing from its heart and soul

Derek Rose, a Buffalo firefighter, didn't know every detail of the story.

How could he know that if Howard Zemsky hadn't knocked on an old screen door on an old Wayne County house at exactly the right moment on a morning maybe six years ago – a moment when no one happened to be home - Zemsky and a friend, Tim Tielman, would never have taken a ride to buy breakfast at the nearby Newark Diner?

If they hadn't taken that drive, they would never have seen the 'for sale' sign in the window of the classic 1937 diner, and Zemsky – intrigued – would never have held the conversation with owner Jim McBride that led to what's about to happen Tuesday:

The Newark Diner – remodeled, restored and gleaming – reopens in Buffalo with a new name, the Swan Street Diner, as part of the mesh of businesses at Zemsky's Larkinville.

What Rose does know is this: Jim and Betty McBride are his grandparents. Rose grew up with the diner in Newark, a village of about 9,000 on the banks of the Erie Canal. For a time, he washed dishes there. Eventually, he left for Niagara University, then settled in Western New York and became a Buffalo firefighter.

Rose remembers his entire family packing into the diner on Christmas mornings. Most powerfully, he remembers how the diner always attracted lonesome regulars who'd find kinship inside the metal walls, and how his grandparents would deliver holiday meals to the homes of these solitary men and women, people they saw as their friends.

All of that washed across Rose on Friday, after the McBrides, both 81, drove to Buffalo at the invitation of the Zemskys to tour the diner before it officially opens to the public.

"Bittersweet," said Rose, 34, who'd written an appreciative email to Howard and his wife Leslie, also integral in putting together Larkinville, an email that pretty much left the entire staff in tears.

"When the transaction was made," Rose wrote, "instead of being free and retired, it took a piece of my grandparents – especially my grandpa – with it."

The Swan Street Diner is set to officially open Tuesday. Friday, the diner admitted family and friends so the staff could practice serving customers. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Don't get Rose wrong. He supports the move. He intends to be a regular. He's glad the diner reopened instead of "being somewhere on a pile of junk," as his grandfather puts it.

It's just impossible for Rose to set aside the memories.

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Jim McBride spent much of his career in the grocery business. More than 30 years ago, ready for a change, he and Betty bought the Newark Diner. For decades, Rose wrote, Jim "went in to open at 5 a.m. and would be on his feet in front of the grill until 9 at night."

Zemsky's involvement was entirely by chance. He happened to drive to Newark years ago as part of a successful - and unrelated - quest for an old Airstream, one of those familiar, rounded, shiny throwback trailers. The Zemskys would later turn an Airstream discovered on that trip into a spot where you can buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee at Larkin Square.

Accompanied by Tielman, an old friend and a longtime Buffalo preservationist, the journey took Zemsky to a rural Upstate house where a guy had seven or eight Airstreams in his yard, all of them for sale.

When they knocked, the owner wasn't home. They looked at each other. Tielman told Zemsky there was a diner in Newark where they could kill some time.

They pulled up. It had that classic diner look, like something from the movies. By sheer coincidence, they saw it was for sale.

Zemsky immediately thought:


Swan Street Diner brings classic American restaurant to Larkinville

Even so, the transaction didn't happen right away. Jim McBride didn't want to sell unless the deal involved both the diner itself and the land beneath it in Newark, which Zemsky didn't need.

A year or so went by, and everything changed. Jim had a massive heart attack and was flown by helicopter to Rochester. He was unconscious for five days, but he recovered.

"He was lucky," Rose said, "that he wasn't a goner."

Not long afterward, a local businessman offered to buy the property under the diner, but had no need for the structure itself. The McBrides saw it as fate, as a moment to let go.

They sold the diner to the Zemskys, who restored it as a family operation. The cost rose to more than $500,000. Howard and Leslie's son-in-law, Michael Myers, played a significant role in the Swan Street project. Their son Harry is involved in running the diner itself.

As for Howard, who also serves the state as chief executive officer of Empire State Development, he saw a much larger civic statement in the little diner.

He has a theory about development in old Upstate cities, that when you build or add to existing historic fabric, you want the additions to be warm, logical, communal ….

You want them to fit.

So the Swan Street Diner – a true Sterling diner from the 1930s, with that old-school rail car look – opens Tuesday on what had been the empty space of a parking lot.

Friday, it received an honorary inspection, a homecoming, from the people who were its heart and soul.

Jim and Betty McBride, both white-haired, made the 100-mile drive from Newark. They walked into the diner in the company of Rose, their grandson. Jim headed straight to the back, to a newly built kitchen, where he offered general manager Amanda Amico a quick lesson in how he preferred to turn eggs using a cake spatula.

Amico, seeing what it meant to him, choked up. Betty said out loud, "Now, Jim, it's their place now," but she was emotional as well, and everyone understood what the lesson meant.

This was a benediction.

Jim and Betty McBride visited the Swan Street Diner in Larkinville Friday, as the staff prepared for its opening. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

This was still the same place, the diner where Jim made eggs and bacon and the wonderful French toast their grandson remembers most of all, the diner where Betty would serve the meat loaf and sausage and soup and other meals she prepared in a back kitchen, the diner whose timeless appearance turned it into an Upstate staging point for an episode of the soap opera, "General Hospital."

The couple recalls a day when a line of hungry residents – after a fierce ice storm knocked out the power in many homes - stretched down the street, seeking food and warmth. The McBrides fed everyone. It underlined how in Newark, for years, the diner was not just a building, but a piece of living fabric.

That's what the Zemskys want the place to be, at Larkinville.

Before he left Friday for the long drive home, Jim McBride didn't offer any fancy advice. His philosophy, really, comes down to this: His customers were right there, watching as he worked at the grill, so they knew exactly where breakfast was being cooked.

"The other thing is," he said, "we always treated people like people."

Do that in Buffalo, as in Newark, and a diner's sure to shine.

The Swan Street Diner will open Oct. 10. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.



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