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December 15, 2012

The Diana Restaurant served area diners for many decades

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The Daily Star

---- — For nearly eight decades during the 20th century in Oneonta, searching for a good dining place in downtown Oneonta sooner or later meant a visit by a searcher to the Diana Restaurant, once found at 156 Main St., from the 1920s through the early ‘90s.

This culinary landmark may never have come to be, had Harry Lambros not come to Oneonta for a job opportunity. Back in May 1934, Lambros told members of the Oneonta Lions Club that he had arrived from Greece in 1903 at Ellis Island. He took a ferry to Jersey City, N.J., where he then boarded an Erie Railroad coach, taking him to Jamestown, where an uncle had sponsored his citizenship.

Western New York’s loss was Oneonta’s gain, when Harry came to work here in 1917 at a storefront then called the Boston Candy Kitchen, 156 Main St. A December 1917 display ad in the Oneonta Star showed he was a co-proprietor with William J. Georgeson. In addition to being a candy shop, the two ran the Pastime Billiard Parlor in the back of the store.

After World War I, Harry Lambros returned from service and bought the business, still running it as the Boston Candy Kitchen. That changed in 1927. The Star reported that “Diana Sweets” opened for business on Thursday, Aug. 24, and “was well patronized and praised by the public. The store is an attractive one and is a most creditable addition to the other confectionary stores and restaurants in the city.” Lambros had taken out the pool tables and replaced them with booths in the new restaurant. The name Diana came from the Roman goddess of the hunt.

Slight variations on the name were made over the next few years. When Prohibition ended in 1933, Lambros rented an adjoining storefront at 160 Main St., calling it the Diana-Garden Restaurant. It opened for business on Thursday, April 20. The Garden portion of the name was dropped in 1936, and many improvements were made to the restaurant, as the “New Diana Restaurant” held its grand opening on Thursday, May 14. 

This change was cause for a festive affair, as Lambros secured Jimmy Thomas and his Aristocrats of Rhythm for dancing and entertainment in the afternoon and evening. Diana Sweets was still at 156 Main St. for several more years, but the store stopped making candy sometime in the 1940s. Eventually the entire restaurant became known as the Diana Restaurant.

George Lambros and Helen Stam, son and daughter of Harry, began working at the Diana in the 1930s, and saw the restaurant through ownership changes in 1991. 

George and Helen saw plenty of changes in their years. In 1970 the restaurant was totally remodeled. A suspended ceiling was installed, covering a painted tin ceiling. The soda fountain with its spinning stools, was replaced by more booths. The tile floor was covered by carpet.

The Diana continued to draw a good lunch crowd, with most coming from local businesses. When Interstate 88 was built, the restaurant lost a lot of the tourist business, as motorists had previously passed through downtown on state Route 7.

Hoot Gibson was among some of the old time performers who ate at the Diana, as they were on their way to performances. 

“Thomas Dewey had a steak here,” Stam said in 1991, regarding a visit by the former New York governor.

George Lambros once referred to the restaurant business as a family affair, as other siblings worked there until they went to college, and then came his own four daughters. He also referred to it as a lot of hard work and quipped, “Lincoln may have freed the slaves in the Civil War, but he forgot to free the Greeks in the restaurant business.”

The Diana was sold to new owners in 1991, who kept the name for awhile. The storefronts at 156-160 Main St. have remained as restaurants since, offering a variety of menus and culinary tastes.

On Monday: A teaching experiment at Bugbee School in the fall of 1947.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.