Manjit Singh is a hard man to track down.
After sending him multiple text messages and making at least six different phone calls over the course of two weeks, I finally managed to talk to him when I paid him an afternoon visit at his restaurant on a busy stretch of 74th Street in Jackson Heights. He smiled once I stepped inside and asked for him by name, and told me he’d only be a minute.
Singh’s elusiveness isn’t because he’s press shy. It’s because he’s been spending every waking minute he can to keep his 40-year-old family restaurant, Jackson Diner, afloat.
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Nowadays, it’s disorienting to step inside Jackson Diner and see its tables and chairs mostly cleared out or pushed to the side. Instrumental music still plays in the background. A customer waits along the side of the restaurant for his takeout order. There’s no outdoor dining setup, here, only takeout. Singh is a multitasking maestro behind the counter, standing by the register, taking orders by phone, and making sure every order that leaves the premises is correct.
In the before-times, pre-COVID, Singh’s restaurant would normally be bustling at this hour. There’d be a long table right by the window, featuring at least 20 different dishes, from vegetable curries and chicken tandoori to plump samosas for the popular $11.95 lunch buffet, available seven days a week. During those days, the restaurant might produce at least 600 pieces of naan a day. At night, whenever I’d pass by from the train station on my way home, the massive dining room would often be filled with families.
Singh only has a few minutes to spare in between orders, so we keep things quick. He tells me he took over the business in 1998, from his father. The restaurant originally opened in 1980 as an American-style diner just down the street from where it is now. In 1982/1983, it transitioned to an Indian restaurant and somehow, the name just stuck. Plus, it’s just easier for folks to remember.
Singh is not particularly sentimental about the years that have transpired — he’s got many other things on his mind at the moment. Things like being able to keep the lights on and to make enough takeout sales to stay in business.
But, he says, if there’s a secret to Jackson Diner’s longevity, it’s that they’ve never been afraid to change with the times, to position themselves as “a culinary passage to India,” both for Indian immigrants who settled here in Queens, as well as the hordes of non-Indian New Yorkers who have passed through their doors for the past 40 years.
Many credit Jackson Heights’ status as a South Asian culinary destination in, some part, to Jackson Diner. It was the culinary lighthouse that brought people to the heart of Queens to eat Indian food in Jackson Heights. It still does that today.
“I always tell people that if they want to try Indian food, this restaurant is a fantastic place to start,” Jennifer Agro, a Jackson Heights resident since 1998 and Jackson Diner regular, recalls. “Jackson Diner helped to expand my Italian American palate into the complex wonder of South Asian flavors, which I now adore.”
That’s exactly what local Olivia Torres’ friend did for her years ago, back when the restaurant occupied a tiny spot right by the bus stop on 74th Street and 37th Avenue. “I remember the owner being so kind,” she says. “My friend introduced me to Indian food there and from then on, I was smitten.”
In that old spot, recalls Jackson Heights resident Keri Goldman, there were picnic tables and you ate, family-style with other groups of diners. “If you asked for more, they brought you more, and not just the rice, naan, or papadam, but the actual entree you ordered.”
Carol Winchester’s family, who’s lived in Jackson Heights for more than 25 years, made it a tradition to eat at Jackson Diner after her sister’s middle-school choir performances and any award ceremonies at I.S. 230. Winchester, now 21, still lives in the neighborhood today. “Those were always fun times,” she says. “We would make fun of our parents and laugh, and my mom would always tell us how proud she was.”
For Singh, the changes that have taken place at Jackson Diner over the years have mostly involved the menu, as he has added new ingredients like lamb and shrimp, Southern Indian staples like dosas, or fusion-inspired dishes like Hakka dry chile chicken and hummus-garlic naan.
And he’s loved seeing how more diners are more open in terms of what they want to order and eat. “I think, over the years, a lot of our customers, especially a lot of our American customers, were afraid of Indian food,” he says. “But over the last 10 years, the American palate has been developed. They tend to be OK with spicier food. That’s why Indian food and Thai food have taken off over the last few years; they want the flavors now. They feel like they’ve been missing out.”
He has fond memories of celebrity visits from Hilary Clinton, both as a First Lady and a presidential candidate. From James Bond (a.k.a. Pierce Brosnan), and Harrison Ford, too. He adds, however, “We like all of our customers. The taxi drivers, the doctors, all the people who’ve been coming in all this time.”
If Jackson Diner can overcome the pandemic, he says, it’ll be because of “a lot of hard work, focus, and dedication to the products.” It’s the same recipe he and his family have stuck with for the past 40 years, and one they don’t plan to change anytime soon.
Jackson Diner: 37-47 74th St., Queens. www.jacksondiner.com