A diner that’s a second home for Manhattan’s blind

  • Annie Correal
  • The New York Times
Dec 07, 2017
Customers escorted by their guide dogs seen at the The Malibu Diner in New York, Nov. 22, 2017. The Malibu Diner, in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, has been the go-to restaurant for blind and visually impaired New Yorkers for 40 years. (Dan Balilty/The New York Times)

“Six in the morning,” Sharon Lash said, “I’m headed to the Malibu.”

Lash taps her way along 23rd Street with a white cane. She counts the doors, noting the sound each one makes as the cane hits it, then turns right.

There are diners in New York that draw Broadway hopefuls; other diners are popular with college students. Then there is the Malibu Diner, a favorite stop, and in some cases a daily one, for a large blind population in Manhattan.

The diner, at 163 W. 23rd St., lies several doors down from Selis Manor, a roughly 200-unit apartment building that offers housing to blind, visually impaired and disabled New Yorkers.

The diner and the building for the blind appeared at about the same time — nearly four decades ago — and have been entwined ever since. The diner opened around 1978 as the City Diner; it became the Malibu Diner around 1981. Selis Manor, which was built by a blind newsdealer named Irving M. Selis, opened in 1980.

Every day, a few dozen residents walk from Selis Manor to the Malibu for breakfast, or for a lunch special, many with their dogs. There’s a system to serve blind patrons, said a waiter, George Stratis. If a server shouts “no mirando,” or “not seeing,” the Spanish-speaking kitchen staff knows to chop up an order, put dressing on a salad, even sprinkle salt and pepper. “They know to cut it into small pieces so they can eat it,” Stratis said.

Lash is among the diner’s longtime regulars, having moved into Selis Manor not long after it opened. She was born in Brooklyn and has been blind since infancy. She attended a high school for the blind in the Bronx.

These days, she works for the Department of Homeland Security, transcribing the interviews of green-card and permanent resident applicants in her one-bedroom apartment.

Before starting her workday, Lash goes to the Malibu for breakfast. She often orders eggs and cheese or eggs and avocado. On weekends, she comes in to chat with Stratis, who has been serving her for about two decades. Stratis said, “If I say in the kitchen, ‘An order for Sharon,’ they know what to do.”

The diner is well-scrubbed and bustling, emitting a warm glow. A seeing customer might notice the servers’ uniforms (blue shirt and red tie), the framed photographs of Iceland on the walls, the beige counter that looks like pebbly sand — the only obvious reference to the Malibu in California.

Visually impaired customers might have a slightly different experience. They might notice the clatter of silverware, the hissing milk steamer, Stratis chatting with tourists, another server singing quietly.

Often, the diner staff has gone beyond chopping meals for its blind regulars. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when part of Manhattan was plunged into darkness and the elevators in Selis Manor were down, the diner donated food for the building’s stranded residents.

Last year, an explosive device was detonated outside Selis Manor, breaking windows and spewing shrapnel. No one in the building was harmed, but the residents of Selis Manor, who were asked to stay inside, were shaken — and stranded again.

The diner staff cooked and delivered hundreds of meals to their loyal customers over the next days. The Malibu was a “lifesaver,” Lash said.