Karen Crowson still remembers the day she moved to Riverhead 31 years ago. With the moving truck still in her driveway, she walked down to the Riverhead Diner & Grill to apply for a job.
It was so busy, they hired her on the spot and put her to work that day.
Three decades later, Crowson is still a waitress at the East Main Street diner and is glad to see that new owners Jim and Sunny Liszanckie of Riverhead have kept the restaurant’s 85-year history in mind as they’ve rebranded it Sunny’s Riverhead Diner & Grill.
“It’s basically the same, but they improved it,” Crowson said.
She said she remembers the winter day when Mr. Liszanckie, sitting at the counter in the diner, suggested buying the restaurant from former owner Liz Strebel, who took over the business from her family in the late 1970s.
Crowson said when she and other staff overheard that, they thought it would be the best-case scenario for the downtown restaurant.
Mr. Liszanckie, a 42-year-old former Greenport resident, had worked as a cook on the North Fork for over 20 years. He switched to a sales job before making the decision to purchase the diner with his wife back in January.
“It was really important to [Liz] that when she sold it, that it was to somebody that actually loved the building, which for Sunny and I that was easy,” Mr. Liszanckie said.
The old-fashioned tile floors and ceiling are among the aspects of the restaurant that haven’t changed. A book titled “The American Diner” includes two pages dedicated to the history of the Riverhead Diner & Grill and the Lizsanckies have those pages on display for customers to read at the counter.
The front of the diner is an authentic 1937 Kullman train car and is decorated with old black and white photos of downtown Riverhead, which the couple kept from Strebel.
To tie the old in with the new, Mr. Liszanckie said they brightened up the eatery’s back room by having a local farmer paint a colorful depiction of the Peconic River across four wood canvases that hang on the fresh white walls.
As far as the menu goes, Mr. Liszanckie said they wanted to make sure they stayed true to the original menu while adding their own modern twist. One new popular menu item is a black bean avocado burger.
“We wanted to keep a lot of the classics, the favorites that people love, but at the same time we also wanted to take everything up a notch,” he said. They removed three seating areas to accommodate a 60-inch sandwich station for making fresh wraps and salads. They use local, fresh produce in their dishes.
They are also still serving up old favorites like meatloaf and a hot open-face turkey sandwich.
“When you come to a diner, especially an old-school one, those are favorites and they always sell well,” Mr. Liszanckie said.
The new owners have focused on maintaining the restaurant as a community hub. The oldies station plays songs like “Lollipop” by the Chordettes and workers stop in on their lunch breaks to sit at the counter and read the newspaper while sipping coffee and enjoying a sandwich or plate of eggs.
Mr. Liszanckie said he aimed to create a space that’s comfortable for all ages. He said he loves being introduced to locals he has never met before and building connections with people who come in each week.
“You can’t beat the small-town feel,” he said. “It’s really being family-friendly and community-minded. That’s our goal.”
Sunny’s Riverhead Diner and Grill is open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.