Governor. Hochul says conversations at three New York restaurants changed his mind about congestion pricing. We investigated.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has long been a vocal fan of diners as places to eat and listen to “ordinary” New Yorkers’ concerns. Nevertheless, she surprised many reporters on Friday when she justified her unexpected 11th hour decision to delay congestion pricing — a plan to charge most drivers $15 to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street — with conversations she has had at New York City diners.

In addition to citing business owners’ rising levels of anxiety, the governor said she had met customers who told her they had driven from New Jersey to patronize their favorite diners.

“That’s all I need to know,” Hochul said.

Her comments sparked a mix of outrage and skepticism on social media. At least one person wondered why a New Jersey resident would drive to Midtown for their Eggs Benedict when the Garden State is considered the country’s diner capital.

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On Saturday, Gothamist visited the three establishments Hochul said she likes to patronize and which may have figured into one of the most controversial policy reversals in recent years. Here’s what happened.

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Townhouse Diner (696 Second Ave.)

As he was hunched over on a chair outside, the owner of Townhouse Diner broke into laughter at the sight of a reporter walking toward him holding a mic.

“Everybody saw the article, and everybody’s coming in,” he exclaimed.

But he was tight-lipped thereafter. He gave his name only as John V. and declined to say anything about congestion pricing. He did confirm that Hochul had in fact visited his diner, which he has owned for 38 years. But he wouldn’t divulge when she last visited, how many times she’d visited in the past, or even what she ordered.

However, one thing he emphatically asserted was that the subject of congestion pricing never came up between them.

“It’s not my business,” he explained. “I don’t talk politics here.”

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The Comfort Diner.

Elizabeth Kim/Gothamist

The Comfort Diner (214 E. 45th St.)

Tarek Abozeid, a 67-year-old veteran business owner who lives in Queens, had lots to say about congestion pricing, as well as other problems he sees with government. He runs a classic diner styled with booths and neon decor. As he sat at the counter, he said it was his partner who complained to Hochul about congestion pricing when she came to the diner.

“That’s why she remembers the place,” he said. “She liked the conversation with him.”

However, he made no mention of patrons who drive in from New Jersey for his heaping portions. Before the pandemic, when he kept later hours, the occasional patron might have driven over from Queens or Brooklyn, he said. But he said that lately his patrons are tourists and those who live and work in the surrounding Midtown area.

Still, he didn’t like congestion pricing. He needs to make car trips from outside Manhattan to buy supplies for his diner, and in his view, the program was too greedy and inflexible. He said $15 was simply too much. He didn’t understand why there couldn’t be grace periods, on Sundays at least, for example. (The program does in fact adjust for overnight hours, when tolls fall to $3.75 for cars and $6 for trucks.)

And while he agreed that the subway needs improvement, he doubted that the money would be used efficiently based on what he’s seen over the years. “I see that they have a project or have some renovation,” he said. “They have 30 people on the location, and two people working.”

He has other reasons to be skeptical. As a taxi owner, he said he watched the city overcharge for medallions and then allow for-hire vehicles like Uber to flood the industry, a decision that would devastate thousands of taxi drivers who were saddled with debt.

“Sometimes it’s very hard to say that the government is doing good,” Abozeid said.

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Pershing Square.

Elizabeth Kim/Gothamist

Pershing Square (90 E. 42nd St.)

Pershing Square is not a diner, as Hochul herself acknowledged, but an art deco-styled bistro located directly across from Grand Central Terminal that is a draw for subway and Metro North commuters. On Saturday afternoon, a handful of people huddled over coffees. The hostess declined to comment or provide the owner’s contact information.

Across the street inside Grand Central, Gayle Price said she was disappointed that the governor had decided to put a halt on congestion pricing.

The 58-year-old Queens resident said she takes the subway three to four times a week to her job in emergency management for the federal government.

Price said she had recently spent several weeks in a town in the south of France where cars were restricted by permit.

“And it was beautiful, it was so calm and peaceful,” she said. “And I was thinking, you know, if we could just take away some of these cars, we could have this here.”

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