Oh my, it's been a wild ride to get where we are today, but we made it. Thanks to a lot of amazing people, persistence and our love for what we do.
My first true diner experience (not the checkerboard floor, jukebox, Peggy-Sue type bastardisation) was in Seattle. I remember walking in to find a humble dining room and bar, scattered a round were a few booze soaked men, two off duty nurses and a young couple sporting Supersonics apparel and VIP lanyards. There was nothing pretentious or affected about it. I was welcomed in and sat at a faded red linoleum table, there I was served the best whisky old fashioned and patty melt I had ever had. I'd fallen in love.
I had spent the better part of my 20's living in North America, so the concept of a food truck was a forethought and the obvious material manifestation of the food culture we loved, was that of the 'Diner'.
If you have been lucky enough to have experienced more than one true diner, you should know that they are not just a relaxed restaurant serving burgers and fries. They are a melting pot of cultures, characters, designs and a common meeting place in most American cities and towns. Diners are incredibly varied in regard to food offering, if you know where to look. A true diner can serve any food the owners wish and are not bound by culinary armatures. The original diners were run by newly immigrated Greek-Americans in the North-East, but have since come to serve mostly American cuisine. Apart from the freedom to serve whatever the hell we want, the thing I love the most about a the diner philosophy, is the fact that everyone was welcome—the true egalitarian eatery.
The Nighthawk adventure began in 2012 after I arrived home from a 7 year stint overseas. I had lived in and traveled to many places, giving me an insight into many food cultures around the world. I had saved some money working as a private chef for billionaires and felt ready to establish something of my own back in Sydney. Naturally, I went straight to the best chef I know, my cousin James (Lilianfel's, Balzac, Atilier, Cafe Sydney) to ask if he wanted to join me. As we had grown up with Big Bird and Chevvy Chase as quasi muses, we were both naturally attracted to the idea of exploring our love for the modern American pop culture, in food.
So James and I decided on building an American diner on wheels. To be as authentic as possible, we chose the aesthetic of an early-mid century American recreational trailer. The designs of these trailers are based on train and aircraft fuselages of the time. The original roadside diners were decommissioned train carriages parked on the shoulders of highways and in vacant lots. We chose the name after the painting by Edward Hopper called 'Nighthawks'. This was the quintessential reference to the type of diner James and I were intrigued by. As chefs, we also connected with the term 'Nighthawk' referring to someone that is awake during hours of darkness.
We needed a vehicle to tow our shiny caboose and we were 'lucky' to find a 1959 A110 International pick up (ute) for sale in Redfern. She was a beauty, we named her 'Queenie'. Queenie's history was that she was built in the Dodge factory in Victoria in 1959 and sent up to NSW to be used as an emergency extraction vehicle, pulling broken down trains to safe harbour. Rated to tow a whopping 7 tonne payload, she was the one for us.
We hit the road officially in 2013 and elbowed our way in to the burgeoning Sydney food truck scene. We hustled as hard as we could, slept only a few hours a night and did our best to stay true to our concept. We ran pop ups in Playbar, Mojo Record Bar, Icon Park and The Unicorn hotel to help grown our brand. We temporarily operated the kitchen in and came up with the concept for a beachside cafe and bar in 2015 called 'Miami Cuba', American-Cuban food and cocktails right on the beach in Manly. James and his partner were about to have a baby and the commute to and from Manly with the truck was killing us, so we decided call it quits on that idea. James, left to be a dad and I forged ahead with the truck.
In 2016, our fleet grew...by one. I had always wanted to sell tacos in the Nighthawk but the demand for our burgers and sandwiches was so high, it didn't seem like the right move. So I built Tacohawk. When living in Las Vegas, working as a private chef, my boss organised a week long crash course in regional Mexican cookery hosted by his head housekeeper Lupe. Lupe was a beautiful middle-aged woman from the Sierra-Madra mountain region in Mexico. She blew my mind. Not in the Mrs Robinson sense but with what she could do with 3 ingredients. Salsas were chilli, garlic, oil. Tortillas were masa, stock and lard. She taught me that it wasn't necessarily what you had to cook with but how you treated what you had. This communication was mostly non-verbal as I spoke hardly any Spanish and she hardly any English, but we got by.
Then in 2017 we added another hawk, most say is the prettiest bird, Sweethawk. I found an old bloke in Tamworth that restored vintage vehicles as a hobby, he had a 1968 C1300 International for sale, cherry red. We had another Rocket trailer customised and engineered to sit on the back of the truck this time, as I learned towing an articulated vehicle around the streets of Sydney was rather challenging at the best of times. We named her 'Cherry Baby' and she is a head turner for sure.
Finally after 5 years, we opened our bricks and mortar diner. We decided to start off with a 'best hits' menu from the food trucks (Nighthawk, Tacohawk, Sweethawk) and gradually add more diner staples. It's an amazing space in a beautiful hundred year old building with floor to ceiling windows that allow natural light to pour in. Herbee Gutierrez designed the diner with a holding bay for the Nighthawk truck and to have the kitchen as open as possible to the diners. It's like one big living room, we want to interact with the diners as much as possible to create a welcoming environment. Emily Vadal directed a complete rebrand to suit our expanded fleet and diner and we couldn't be happier!
Finally after long 6 years, we have a home and boy do we want to share it with you. We are planning movie nights and live music to our weekly routine, so stay tuned and please come in and say hi, we can't wait to meet y'all!!
Founder of Nighthawk Diner