New Owners Work to Restore Iconic Fair Lawn Restaurant's Old Ethos
The landmark Fair Lawn restaurant has made a resurgence under new ownership
Benny’s Luncheonette still isn’t quite the bustling town hub that it was back in the 1980s and ‘90s, but it’s getting there.
Since taking over last June, new owners Diana Stella and Tony D’Ascoli have made it their mission to return the anachronistic Saddle River Road eatery to its glory days, back when its larger than life namesake, Benny Erlich, trolled the grounds.
“This place was booming every day. They had lines like out the door, it was crazy,” Stella said of the original Benny’s. “We’re trying to get it back to what it was then.”
Stella, 28, has heard plenty of stories about the restaurant’s legendary original owner, but she never met Erlich, a man known for his hard work and boundless generosity who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2009.
Her business partner, however, was a regular customer during the restaurant’s heyday and remembers it fondly.
Just as he was getting ready to retire from a long career in the restaurant business last year, D’Ascoli heard Benny’s was for sale and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to reinvigorate one his of cherished old haunts.
“His [previous] restaurant was supposed to be his last one,” Stella said of D’Ascoli. “But then he found out about this place and he really thought we could bring it up and get it going like they used to have it.”
Since the takeover, Stella said the team has worked tirelessly to modernize the facility while retaining the low prices, oversized portions and homey atmosphere that initially gained Benny’s so many loyal customers.
The floor and ceiling are new and the long counter has been shortened, but Benny’s still has the unmistakable look and feel of a 1950s diner. The tile floor’s black and red checkerboard scheme and the faint melodious hum of Doo Wah Ditties by Manfred Mann, the Beach Boys and Ben E. King ring through the restaurant and transport patrons to a simpler time.
Besides fixing the place up, Stella said she and D’Ascoli have set out to improve the quality of food and customer experience at Benny's
A pastry chef and recent French Culinary Institute graduate, Stella bakes an assortment of pastries fresh every morning, from a traditional Jewish hamantash to a rich New York cheesecake.
“I just try different things to see how it goes right now,” Stella said, running off a list that includes croissants, brownies, rugelach, crumb cake, carrot cake and fresh muffins to name a few. “I can make anything and people know that so they’ll ask me to make a special cake for them. So I’ll do that for them.”
On the hot food side, head chef D’Ascoli cooks meats fresh each day and concocts high-quality daily specials that have been a hit with customers.
“Our turkey is phenomenal, everybody loves the turkey,” Stella said. “Our pastrami sandwiches are really good, too.”
Once a popular hang out for local police, borough employees and town volunteers, Benny’s had lost the patronage of some of its regulars in recent years, but Stella said it’s gradually been gaining them back via word of mouth.
Local EMS crews, who receive a discount at Benny’s for their public service to the community, have recently reclaimed their old table by the window, she said.
“We got a lot of people back,” said Stella, whose entire team – owners/cooks, delivery man and wait staff -- all make an effort to get to know each of their customers by name and order, just as Benny did.
“People get offended if you give them a menu,” she said. “They know what they want when they come in.”
As of last Friday, Benny’s, which had previously been open for only breakfast and lunch, expanded its hours and added a special daily dinner menu Tuesday through Saturday.
“We did a lot of fish and a couple of steaks on the menu, but you can get the regular menu, too,” Stella said Monday, following the first two nights of Benny’s dinner experiment. “People were loving it, they came back two days in a row and they were upset that we were closed [Sunday] for dinner.”
Going forward Stella said her goal is just to continue working to return Benny’s to local prominence and please her loyal customers.
“I want it to be packed all the time,” she said. "That’s where I want to get it.”
Benny's held its grand re-opening last Friday. Click here for pictures.