Utopia Diner’s famous onion rings aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, according to the owner.
We recently reported that Utopia’s space – 267 Amsterdam Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd Streets – had been listed for lease. The listing had been a complete surprise to Utopia owner Mike Sabry.
But after a five-minute meeting on Friday between Sabry and the landlord, the restaurant is here to stay, he tells us.
“We’ve been knowing each other for over 30 years, and he’s very reasonable,” Sabry said on Friday afternoon, just after the meeting. “But I have to put myself in his shoes. He has a lot of expenses, a lot of stress, so he did what he did, and I understand what’s behind it. We sit down for five minutes and we finish everything. So I’m not going nowhere. He’s happy, I am happy. And that’s it. It’s over.”
We reached out to the landlord, Michael Laub, who confirmed they came to an agreement, adding that the “situation of ability to pay rent will be revisited every few months.” Laub told us he understands why some of his stores are struggling to pay rent, but that property owners also need help right now. He told us he has many vacant apartments, which he’s never had before, attributing these vacancies to people fleeing the city. He’s still however burdened with the same high real estate taxes, bank payments and other building expenses.
Just a day before their meeting, Sabry said that for the past two years he’s been remodeling the restaurant and updating its look – despite operating without gas the entire time, losing about 40 percent of his business.
“I spent all my money on the renovation; when the gas come[s] back, I’m ready. It took another year. Finally, I got the gas at the end of July, after two years. He tried to help as much as he can, but I got hurt as much as I can afford. We hope we worked [out] something together, and we passed the bad time. We’re always going to be friends, doesn’t matter what.”
Changes to the diner include a new floor, new ceiling, new booths and tables, updated bathrooms and mosaics all over. Sabry also says he foresaw the need for barriers due to the pandemic.
“I put partitions to protect the customers from Coronavirus between each table and each divider. I try to do my best to keep my customers safe. I try to come back as strong as usual before the gas, and I pray to God to help me stand up on my feet again, to help my boys – they’ve been together with me for 25 years,” Sabry said.
When asked why his onion rings are the best in town?
“We cook everything here in love, with love and for love. We love you all,” Sabry said, with a big smile.
Lee Uehara is not only a journalist and documentary-style photographer, she is also the host of the podcast, House of Lee NYC. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and many other news outlets through her work as a former reporter for The Associated Press. You can usually spot her in the neighborhood walking her dog with a camera in hand. Visit HouseOfLeeNYC.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.