Ithaca, N.Y. — After more than five decades in the business, Bill Manos has earned the right to wax poetic on the virtues of diners.

“Diners create an atmosphere for everybody — from the professionals to the truck driver to the working man,” he said. “That’s what the diners are for. That’s why they’re open 24 hours.”

Why I shop downtown — Marty

[fvplayer src=”https://vimeo.com/112409991″ loop=”true” mobile=”https://vimeo.com/112409991″]

The iconic Manos Diner on Route 13 is closing on Sunday night after more than a half-century of serving hungry travelers in Tompkins County. Bill Manos, 76, said his operation has come a long way since it began as little more than a food truck surrounded by junkyards in 1962, but that he’s simply reached the journey’s end.

“After 52 years, how much can the body take?,” Manos says in an interview Monday afternoon. “It’s been a nice ride all these years, but it’s time to hang it up.”

Bill Manos outside his diner Monday afternoon. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

Click on each section or read the story sequentially 

1 – A sudden, contentious closure
2 – What’s next?
3 – Humble origins
4 – An Ithaca landmark
5 – Demise of the family diner


A sudden, contentious closure

Bill Manos’ calm about the diner’s end was not shared by many of his employees. Amid the usual mid-day lunch rush Monday, waitresses expressed their anger toward the owner as they served the diner’s many regulars.

“We’re all pissed. We had no idea whatsoever that he was even thinking about it,” one said, adding that Manos Diner employs around 30 people. “He’s going to be built up like a martyr, but he’s really not.”

Another waitress, talking with a customer she has served for over 10 years, said the short notice was infuriating in part because it would make it very difficult to afford Christmas presents for her grandchildren.

“I get eight days notice that I don’t have a job anymore … it’s very poor on Bill’s part,” she said.

A third employee who has worked at Ichabod, the bar adjoining Manos which is also closing, said she cried when she was told the news on Friday. “I’ve put in a lot of years here,” she said.

Bill Manos said he understood why his employees were upset but said that a “once-in-a-lifetime” deal had emerged that he could not turn down.

“I didn’t know anything was moving — it happened at the last minute,” Manos says.

“I didn’t have it on the market or anything like that. I was approached and we discussed it and it was a mutual agreement and that was it…The only thing is the timing for my employees. I feel sad about the employees.”

What’s next for the location?

A new restaurant will be opening in Manos’ old location at 375 Elmira Road/Route 13, according to real estate broker Stephen Lipinski.

Lipinski wouldn’t give the name of the new owners. Manos wouldn’t either. The new place will be run by the owners of several restaurants all outside New York State.

“They’re going to make quite a few changes,” Lipinski says.

Lipinski said that the new owners aren’t bringing a chain to Ithaca — “multi-unit is the proper term,” he says, for the multiple locations under the independent owners’ control.

Lipinski said that it’s important to remember that while Manos is closing, an eatery will remain in the space.

“(Manos) is closing the door, but in early spring a new restaurant will be opening up,” Lipinski said. “We’d like that message out there.”


Humble origins

Bill Manos was born New Year’s Day in 1938 in the village of Gortza in Greece. He came to the United States with his family when he was nine and then they moved to Ithaca in 1961.

The Manos family started the Route 13 stop in 1962 with a 43-seat diner that Bill Manos called more or less a “street car.”

Bill Manos’ cousin outside the diner in the 1960s.

A devoted clientele quickly sprung up to support the local family — and its food.

“His mother used to make excellent rice pudding,” said Charles Hubbell, 78, a diner who has known the Manos family for decades, as he tucked into his hashbrowns Monday afternoon.

In 1977, Bill Manos decided an upgrade was needed. “That place was beyond repair … it was ready to fall apart,” Manos said. He closed a bar he owned in downtown Ithaca, had a pole set up to prominently proclaim the Manos’ corner of the city, and built the establishment that stands to this day.

The pride he had in owning the business, Manos said, was tempered by a grueling and relentless schedule. “I’ve been a busboy for 52 years,” he says. Extended breaks, he stresses, were rare or non-existent.

“Even on my wedding I didn’t go on vacation,” he says.

Manos’ office

Here’s how Manos described his routine for five decades: The day would begin at 10 a.m., for the breakfast shift. Then he’d work until about 4 p.m., take an hour off, come back at 5 p.m. and work until about 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.

An hour off would be followed by a return for the late-night shift, starting at midnight and lasting until 5 a.m. He’d be back for the 10 a.m. shift the next day.

“The routine was like that for 52 years,” he says. “It’s time. It’s time.”


An Ithaca landmark

Manos, the father of three children and a grandfather, is also the clear patriarch of the diner that bears his name. With black bushy eyebrowns and slicked back gray hair, he glad-hands his way around the diner like a Homecoming king or mayor of a tiny village.

He has memories of serving and cooking for several Ithaca mayors, prominent politicians and famous alumni from Ithaca’s colleges. “I don’t want to be the one to say landmark,” he says of Manos’ iconic status. “I’ll let the people judge that.”

Manos Diner has been the site of weddings, parties and banquets, according to Manos. Pressed for his favorite stories from his time at the diner, he says: “Do you have a year or six months?” He heaped praise on former Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen for encouraging the development along Route 13 that Manos says transformed it from a junkyard space into a commercial hub.

Beyond the diner’s commercial success, Manos spoke fondly of forming lasting friendship with his customers. Once, he was at the adjoining Ichabod bar with a male friend when a woman he was also friends with walked in. He introduced them and went back to the kitchen to work.

A few months later, they were married. Manos was named the best man. The banquet was at the diner. “We had a hell of a time,” he says.


Demise of the family diner?

For all the goodwill built up over the years, the mood at Manos diner Monday afternoon was decidedly somber.

“No! You’re not closing!,” one man exclaimed as he passed by the crane game that greets Manos customers. “I can’t believe it.”

Al Cobane, a retired man who lives in Lansing, said he has been coming to Manos regularly for “45 to 50 years.”

“I’m sure as things change there will be something else here, but it won’t be the same,” Cobane said. “I’ve watched Bill’s family grow up.”

“The problem is it’s all box stores and the family diner is going by the wayside. And that’s what I really enjoy – family restaurants.”

Cobane said he’s grown to be friends with Manos, his staff and other diners. He pointed at an elderly couple across the diner and noted that they and his wife had traded notes about hip replacements.

“My sister called me this morning to go to Auburn. I told her, ‘No, I have to go to Manos,’” Cobane says. “I’ll probably have to learn how to cook now,” he adds with a sigh and a smile, only half-joking.

A half-dozen other diners had similar thoughts. Some, like Betty Buck, lamented the timing of the closure for the employees. Sitting over tea with three old friends, Buck also said that the group would need to find a new sponsor for their bowling team — Manos had sponsored their team for years.

Lloyd VanDebogart said he and Manos both graduated high school in 1957. VanDebogart comes to Manos a few times a week and was shocked when he heard of the diner’s closure on the radio Monday morning.

“We just love coming to a family diner,” says his wife, Gloria Vandebogart, sitting across from Lloyd at a cozy Manos booth.

“To me, I’ll miss most the comfort of being in a family diner.”

Courtesy of Ithaca.edu

Follow The Ithaca Voice on Facebook | Twitter

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.