Filmmaker Anthony Scalia says he spent his whole life driving past the venerable Bendix Diner—an old-fashioned, stainless steel fixture on the median between Route 17 North and South in Hasbrouck Heights—and never pulled over.
“It was just something you kind of pass because it looks a little run-down,” the Lodi native, 29, admits.
But late one night in 2016, Scalia was hungry. It was 3 am, and nothing else was open. The Bendix, fluorescent lights glowing, beckoned.
From his table, Scalia watched his waiter deftly work, noticing that the man was not making the usual eye contact. Scalia wondered: Could he be blind?
“As soon as [my] straw hit the bottom of the cup, he came over and refilled it,” Scalia recalls, sitting at a corner booth at the Bendix. “I’d never had that happen before…. And then I just found the most incredible story hiding in plain sight.”
Scalia had stumbled upon what he realized would make a riveting documentary: John Diakakis, a blind, single father of three boys, had been working here at his family’s diner for decades. Oh, my God, Scalia remembers thinking. How has nobody tapped into this yet?
Scalia would spend three years filming Diakakis and his sons—Tony, Dimitri and Michael—for what would become Bendix: Site Unseen. It’s one of two documentaries on Diakakis that premiered at the New Jersey International Film Festival in June, coinciding with the diner’s 75th anniversary this year. (The other film, Stephen Michael Simon’s Bacon ’n’ Laces, named for the extensive sneaker collection Diakakis amassed with his eldest son, Tony, was featured on the New Yorker’s website, too.)
“You have a chip on your shoulder,” says Diakakis, who was born legally blind. “You want to prove something.” From his earliest days in the diner, “even my mom would say, ‘Oh, you can’t do this.’”
Now 55, Diakakis began working at the Bendix—which his father, Tony, purchased in 1985—in the ’90s. He’d graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in psychology and was pursuing stand-up comedy, centering routines on his blindness. Tony suggested he work the register to earn extra cash.
Relying on his heightened non-visual senses, Diakakis started teaching himself server duties—listening, for example, to the symphony of sounds a mug makes as it fills with coffee. (He’s burned himself once or twice, but to this day has never, he boasts, spilled on a customer.)
“The cooks would turn around and say, even to my parents… ‘Wow, John is better and more attentive [than the other waitstaff],’” he says.
Not everyone was immediately accepting. “People would come in trashed in the overnight [shifts] and be like, ‘What are you, stupid?’” he recalls.
But as a former college wrestler with a lifelong competitive streak—and a mouth that could rival Tony Soprano’s—Diakakis never cowered. “So, I’m like, ‘What, you have a problem with me being f’ing blind?’…And the reality sinks in. Then,” he muses, “I go from being the stupidest guy to being the most amazing human being.”
Despite his blindness, Diakakis managed to obtain residential custody of his three sons when they were young. He recalls toting Tony in a carrier strapped to his chest as he served customers their coffee. “Poor kid,” he jokes. “He should disown me.” The boys grew up hanging out at the diner and eventually working there, washing dishes, cooking and looking out for their dad.
Tony, 22 this month, graduated from Harvard this year—his acceptance to the school is an emotional high point in both documentaries—and started a job at a private capital company in Boston. Dimitri, 20, studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Michael, 18 this month, works alongside his father at the diner and will attend Rider University in Lawrenceville this fall.
While Diakakis’s story had remained relatively out of the spotlight until recently, the Bendix has long garnered recognition far beyond the Garden State as an icon of Americana. The diner appears in such films as Jersey Girl (1992), Boys on the Side (1995) and The Many Saints of Newark (2021), and in commercials starring Ray Charles and Michael J. Fox. “For a while there, the Bendix Diner may have been the most famous diner on American TV,” Peter Genovese wrote in a 2019 NJ.com ranking of Jersey’s 30 greatest old-school diners.
Jerry Seinfeld stopped by with comedian Barry Marder in a 2012 episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Jack Antonoff’s Bergenfield-born band, Bleachers, shot the video for their 2021 single, “Stop Making This Hurt,” in the Bendix, turning band members loose to dance on the tabletops.
Diakakis works seven days a week at the diner, which he refers to in Scalia’s documentary as “Cheers with food.” Paired with the promise of a good meal, he says, it’s “kind of a homey, perfect place.”
Diakakis encounters all walks of life—“from truck drivers to people who fly gazillionaires all around the planet… to a family coming in for some hearty breakfast on the weekend.”
He adds: “Every day that I’m here should be some sort of learning experience.”
It may be for the customers, as well. “I’m sorry to say this,” Diakakis says, “but when this place is busy, I love showing off. I can feel the eyes on me: ‘How the eff is he doing this blind?’”
Anthony Scalia’s documentary, Bendix: Site Unseen, which won an honorable mention in the New Jersey International Film Festival this June, is not yet public but will next be available to watch online on October 16 as part of the festival’s fall programming.Click here to leave a comment