HALL, NY - The New Hall Diner - purposely named to distinguish it from the old Hall Diner - is the kind of small-town place in Ontario County farmland where everyone can just sing "Happy Birthday" to you, whether or not they know you or not.
It happened to Penny Hankins one morning when she stopped in for breakfast. So of course Hankins kept coming for it. She might just come in this weekend, the last diner open, at least under Tamarie Cataldo's ownership.
“I think of the dining room as a good friend,” Hankins said. "So I'm sad to say goodbye to a good friend."
Also upset is Cataldo herself, who said she learned to cook diner-style and manage a kitchen and restaurant on the fly after deciding to give it a shot five years ago.
"I want to cry so much," Cataldo said, thinking of the customers who have had children since they started coming in, or others who have lost spouses and still stop in because it brings them comfort. "Those are the kinds of connections I love. and enjoy and I'm really going to miss."
Why New Hall Diner is special
Inside, there seem to be more cow pictures hanging on the yellow walls than dairy cows. A customer painted a picture of Cataldo, which also adorns a wall. So is a whole lot of decorative and vintage plates that a customer found in his attic.
The board where the day's specials are highlighted, near the record player where Bob Dylan's "Greatest Hits Vol. II" is waiting for someone to give it a spin? It was found on the side of the road by a customer on his way to Buffalo for a concert. He put it in his truck because he knew someone who just liked it.
Cataldo loved it.
In fact, the entire place may be decorated with gifts from people who share Cataldo's pride of ownership in the dining room. That ownership has shown in other ways, as some have even donned aprons and helped her out on busy days, while others have cared for her plants over the years.
"I think it's so cute," Cataldo said. "It's really cool."
A place of acceptance
People have been known to sit outside in the cars and wait for the doors to open. For many people, this is their weekly pleasure.
The sweet and lovely community of the Hall itself consists of maybe 290 people, Cataldo said, but they love to come in and eat.
Carol Wetherbee and her high school friend from the time Martha Anderson remember the time they came in for breakfast.
“We got in at 9 and shut the place down,” laughed Wetherbee.
And that attracts good people, according to Kendall Davis, a senior at Marcus Whitman High School who busses tables, washes dishes, waits tables, gets drinks — whatever it takes.
“I thought being in food service would be stressful — and sometimes it can be when it's busy — but they make it fun,” Kendall said.
Cataldo said one of her superpowers is getting an entire room to talk to each other.
Here's her secret. She starts a conversation with someone and then leaves somewhere else. The place is small so anyone can hear what they are talking about and be drawn into the conversation. Then the whole room is loud and talking and having fun.
"I don't think you get that feeling in every restaurant you go to," Cataldo said. “You go in with your own little bubble. You stay in your own little bubble and you leave in your own little bubble. It's different here."
Everyone is just so warm, "non-judgmental" and kind to each other, Cataldo said.
"It's almost like a little oasis in this really weird climate," Cataldo said. "It's almost like a place removed from everything else in this world."
Local food, local suppliers at New Hall Diner
Cataldo calls his place magical, but no eatery survives for five years on atmosphere alone.
Cataldo prides herself on using as much local produce as she can get her hands on, often in unique ways, in crafting her menu. A list of local vendors is prominently displayed behind the lunch counter.
“Her use of farm-to-table is true farm-to-table,” Wetherbee said.
Cataldo created his menu so customers could have an adventure. Referring to two local retailers in particular: "You can get simple food—eggs, fries and white toast. No one is forcing you to upgrade to Bostrom (Farms Meat Market) bacon or to upgrade to Rise and Shine English muffin bread."
Another vendor is the inspiration for the apple grill, which features grilled Red Jacket Orchards apples with sharp cheddar cheese and Dijon mustard on sourdough with homemade chips.
The prices are "ridiculously low," said customer Rebecca Burton, and the portions are huge — pointing to her breakfast companion Hankins' pancake, which was more like a pie than a side dish for her breakfast.
Over time, Cataldo treated the kitchen as she would a bar during her bartending days, which meant everything was set up the way she wanted it, with ingredients and utensils within easy reach so she could work quickly and creatively.
“Once I got into the groove, I really, really got into it,” Cataldo said. "I feel like the customers have seen me grow from the very beginning."
Her vision for the New Hall Diner came after a visit to the old one. Once inside, she caught herself daydreaming.
"This place is so cute, what should I do with it?" she thought.
On a visit two Sundays later, it was closed, but she noticed the for rent sign in the window. She jumped in.
At least twice since, she was approached about buying the building, but she said she couldn't swing it. In the back of my mind, there was always the possibility that if someone else bought it, there was always the possibility that the new owner would do their own thing with the space. "It is what we say," she told customers in a Facebook post. Her lease expires in March, but Cataldo said the time has come to "rip off the Band-Aid."
"I feel so loving and sentimental about that building that I think it would just break my heart," Cataldo said if she waited.
After this weekend, who knows what's in store? Cataldo, who is from Canandaigua and now lives in Geneva, is exploring several options, including doing brunch pop-ups at different eateries. In the immediate future is a visit to Florida.
“I go to Jacksonville and drink margaritas in the sun with my sister,” Cataldo said.
Yes, she is upset with her employees, many of whom first got to know Cataldo when they waited on her as a customer and have since become friends through thick and thin.
"I know a good server when I see them," Cataldo said.
But looking back, Cataldo noted that it was her first time owning a business and restaurant, and she made it through five years, including the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that shut down places like hers. Her food got good reviews. The customers kept coming back and in the process she helped make them feel comfortable, welcome and happy.
"I consider it a huge success," Cataldo said. "I told my staff, keep your heads up. We did a great job here."
After this Sunday, there will be other places to eat and talk, but they won't have the cozy, little country atmosphere here, Burton said.
"I don't think we'll ever find anything that will be like this place," Hankins said.
The New Hall Diner, 4856 Main St. (state Route 14A), Hall, is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.