Since 1976, Del Rio Diner has been open at 166 Kings Highway 24-hours a day, every day — except New Year’s Eve.
“New Year’s is amateur night,” explained Larry Georgeton, 66, co-owner of Del Rio and its spawn Vegas Diner (1619 86th Street). “We didn’t want the problems. At 9 o’clock we’d close, and reopen at 6, and we’d still sometimes get the crazies, bombed out of their shorts.”
Larry refused to let me take his photo, though he looked dashing with his snowy mustache and side burns, wearing a semi-unbuttoned pink-checked shirt, that revealed a tuft of chest hair and a thick gold chain. “You never know, somebody might be looking for me,” he said with a wink.
The iconic diner on the border between Bensonhurst and Gravesend, which was built from scratch by Larry and his partners Teddy Mavromichalis and Jimmy Vlamis (both in their 80s) from an old carwash, will close for good on July 24. Larry’s 86th Street diner, which has the same menu and is run by Teddy’s 40-year-old, energetic son Frankie, will remain open.
It’s a story that we’ve witnessed time and time again among mom and pops food establishments in Bensonhurst. Business at Del Rio has slowed considerably over the years as demographics shifted and the cost of labor and food skyrocketed.
“The economy is not for this kind of business model anymore,” said Larry. “I love my customers, and I don’t want to hurt them with the menu. They are hardworking, middle class people here — bus drivers, postmen, teachers — they don’t want to pay $9-$10 for a hamburger, so I said, let’s go out on top.”
Born and raised in Franklin Square, Long Island, Larry’s parents died before he turned 5 and he was raised by two Italian Ameican families. After a stint at Nassau Community College, Larry spent six years in the air force, where he was deployed to Vietnam. Though he still lives out on “the Island,” he says Brooklyn, where he built his business, is his home. “Over here, people are real, they tell it like it is,” he said.
Indeed, patrons grumbled loudly to Larry when he first raised his menu prices last year, and they kept it real when they learned this week that he is closing up shop. “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” he said.
Tears were shed when Larry first made the announcement to his 40-plus staff members Sunday night, many of whom have worked at the diner for more than a decade.
“It’s not like a job, we’re all one big family,” said Christina Arcudas, a server who has worked at Del Rio for 10 years.
The eatery has seen some wild times in its 40 year run. Scenes from the 2007 comedy film I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and an episode of the television show Blacklist were both filmed at the diner. Del Rio tables have seen Major League baseball player Joe Pepitone as well as comedian Jacky Mason, who brought with him an entourage of six. “He stopped at every single table,” Larry said of the humorist.
Larry fondly recalls Del Rio during Bensonhurst’s disco era, when John Travolta-wannabes packed the diner after hours each weekend.
“You had to be here Friday and Saturday night, it was killer. We use to get all the clubs,” said Larry. “It was like a fashion show; with the girls, and the guys were all three-piece suits.”
In addition to the occasional celebrity, local cops and politicians are welcome regulars at Del Rio, including the staff of Assemblyman William Colton’s office, which is located across the street. A steady group of retired officers and other neighborhood old timers meet at the diner every Thursday to play cards and reminisce. During Fleet Week, sailors know that if Larry is around, they eat free.
Though Larry says he knows the time has come to move on, the idea is still painful. “Because this is the mother,” he said. “When you lose a mother, it hurts.”
If you decide to stop by Del Rio Diner to pay your respects this week, Larry recommends the hamburger, made exclusively with Pat LaFrieda meats. Meanwhile, share your favorite Del Rio memories in the comments below.