Walk into the Palace Diner in Gloversville when it’s slow, and it doesn’t take long before the staff is laying out three or four thick black binders full of newspaper clippings and yellowed photographs from the diner’s 93-year history to accompany your cup of coffee.
“Everything was booming around here, everything,” says owner Jackie Sena, who inherited the diner when her husband Tony passed away last year.
The Palace Diner has been in the Sena family for nearly 50 years, and she runs it now with her two sons, Tony Jr. and Richard.
The walls of the diner are plastered with photos of customers, customers’ kids— “all of our diner kids that we’ve watched grow up,” in the words of head waitress Patti Brown — old photos of the diner and region, postcards from regulars, and memorabilia from the past century of Gloversville history.
The 1923 lunch wagon— the word “diner” didn’t become popular until after World War II— was built by the Jerry O’Mahony Lunch Wagon Company of New Jersey and billed at the time as “The Largest Dining Car in the World,” according to “Diners of the Capital District” by Mike Engle.
The description seems comical today. The original dining car was 37 feet long by 7 feet wide. An addition in the 1940s added another seven feet or so to the width for some extra tables, but the place is still a lunchbox where tall customers need to duck in places and wait times can reach an hour on a busy Saturday.
It sits nearly unchanged today, like a living museum, at the foot of two four-story brick glove factories that have been closed for years. The original stools at the diner at 63 S. Main St., most of them anyway, stand at the marble counter. The black-and-white tiles still cover the floor, and Tony Jr. cooks breakfast and lunch right behind the counter. The diner’s neon “Open” sign invites a regular crowd of city workers and retirees in every day except Monday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“Years ago we used to be open nine o’clock at night, then it went to eight, then it went to seven,” said Richard Sena, head cook. “And now it’s three. It’s just not there like it used to be, ya know what I mean.”
As a customer comes in and sits down, Richard shouts out, “Hey, we got your ham and scalloped potatoes today, sir! Delicious!”
“I’ll probably have that,” says the customer, 61-year-old Dave Mattice, a retired mason from Johnstown who’s been coming to the diner a few times a week for the past 20 years or so.
Unlike his older brother, Tony Jr., who started working at the diner at age 12, Richard sought work elsewhere. He learned plumbing at age 17 from a diner regular, and has fallen back on that and other trades between stints in the leather factories.
A changed economy
Through the first half of the 20th century, Gloversville produced about 90 percent of the country’s gloves, and about 80 percent of the city’s population was employed in the industry. For about 20 years of Richard’s life, even as the industry was waning, he made the rounds of the factories: Liberty Leather, Karg Tannery, Leather’s Best, Carville National Leather Corp.
“We had a lot of work back then, ya know what I mean,” says Richard.
The 50-year-old has a voice like a gravel mixer, an easy, loud laugh at the ready for co-workers and customers, and the habit of punctuating most sentences with “ya know what I mean.”
“We had a lot of work, but the cricks were dirty,” he says. “You couldn’t fish out of the cricks, but you could quit a job, within a couple hours you could go down the street and get another job somewhere else. Never had a problem with that.”
Thirty years ago, he says, you could shop on Main Street in Gloversville without driving to a Wal-Mart on the edge of town. He remembers going to Argersinger’s Department Store, which closed in 1993, to shop on all three floors. He repeats his mother’s words: “The city was booming.”
When the glove industry went under for good throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, Richard went into asbestos abatement and construction, and the diner started cutting back hours.
At one point, as staff and regulars tell it, the city had several diners, all open 24 hours. The people who worked in the factories would be there all hours of the day — in the morning for breakfast before work and late at night for a meal after the bars closed.
Now, when they get on the topic of regulars, Tony Jr., Patti and Jackie start listing off the names of people who have passed away, moved away, or stopped coming as eating out has become too expensive for retirees with limited income.
“Just the city’s changing, you know,” says Jackie. “There’s nothing here no more.”
She gives a smokey, resigned laugh.
But Patti comes to the city’s defense: “The Glove Theater and Mohawk Harvest [Cooperative Market] has really done a lot of good for Main Street, they really have,” says the 31-year-old. “The Glove, you actually go there when they do the plays and stuff on the weekends, and you actually have nice vehicles all over Main Street.”
The Sena boys nod in agreement, but don’t see a future for the old Palace Diner in the city, resurgence or not.
For one, the diner is 93 years old. It’s hard to keep it up to code without enormous investments, and it gets more expensive every year. Richard says people have suggested buying an adjacent lot (too expensive and possibly contaminated, he says) or expanding the diner. He shrugs and sighs.
“I’m 50,” he says. “What, I gotta work ’til 90 to get my money back? You know where everyone wants to go. They want to go to Applebee’s, they want to go to Ruby Tuesday’s, they want to go to the Recovery Zone, they want to play games, get fancy drinks.”
‘can’t leave hungry’
When it comes to his restaurant philosophy, Richard has one rule: “You can’t leave hungry.”
In the kitchen, he uses the recipes handed down to him by his father, which were probably handed to him by previous owner Carl Clute. They’ve barely changed in 60 years, says Richard, and the customers take note. The regulars who line the counter may not be the most talkative types, but they all say they come to the diner again and again for one thing: “the food.”
“Everything’s homemade,” says Richard. “All homemade stuff, ya know what I mean. For a diner, we make better Italian sauce than three quarters of the places in New York State. As far as I’m concerned, I make the best sauce in New York State. I’m not going to be modest about it. I love it. I’ll almost drink it.”
Richard came back to the diner when his father started getting sick about six or seven years ago to help out and has been cooking there ever since. Like his brother, though, he doesn’t see a future for himself there.
“It’s all about family,” he says. “I’ve always been fortunate enough to have a mother and father who were always there and cared. Won’t turn by back on ‘em ever. I’m here until the day she doesn’t want to run this place anymore, ya know what I mean. So when she says she’s had enough, then we’ll figure it out.”
Tales of Tony Sr.
From the family talk, it’s clear that Tony Sr., who started working at the diner at age 12 and later took over, was the heart and soul of the place. Most of their stories revolve around him, and the phrases, “Tony would remember” or “Tony could tell you exactly…” pop up often. There was the day in 1948, a Monday, when he raised the price of coffee from 25 cents to 50 cents and “he didn’t have a customer in here,” says Tony Jr. And the time a customer went to play football at Syracuse University and brought a few linebacker friends for the diner’s all-you-can-eat pancake special, just 75 cents. When they were each about 15 pancakes in, Tony “ripped that sign right off the wall,” says Patti, the words trailing off into laughter.
In those days, remembered with fondness, Tony would give some regulars the keys to the diner so they could get in and fire up the grills before he got there in the morning.
“The honor system,” Patti says. “You can’t do that nowadays.”
Patti grew up alongside the Sena family in Gloversville with a backyard connected to their backyard by a small trail, and is treated like family. Though customers tend to say they come for the food, she knows the “ambiance” plays a big part. “It’s like ‘Cheers’,” she says. “Everybody knows your name.”
As she and Tony Jr. lock up for the day and walk out onto Main Street, Tony Jr. points to a machine shop across the street that used to bring 50 customers a day to the diner and now runs “a skeleton crew.”
Patti looks up and down the street, tries to remember when this factory closed or that one, and talks about how different things used to be. Then she shrugs.
“I don’t care, I still love it,” she says. “It’s where I was born and raised.”
Come Saturday, glove industry or not, the Palace Diner will be packed from 6 a.m. to closing time at noon, says Richard. And even though they’re closed on Mondays, and have been for the past two years, customers still come around.
“They’re always tuggin’ on that door, trying to get back in,” says Jackie.