the beginning of the 20th Century, Diners have been prefabricated by a
number of manufacturers, most in New Jersey, and are delivered fully
assembled (or broken into smaller slices for ease of transport) and ready to
go. You need to walk up a few steps to enter a Diner. Breakfast is the big
meal here, usually served all day. At other mealtimes the menu is
supplemented with simple, hearty fare: homemade meat loaf, real mashed
potatoes, string beans straight from Le Can, homemade squash pie, and
a bottomless mug of coffee; as opposed to grilled medallions of veal with
capers and lemon butter sauce, served with mixed field greens (aka
"weeds"), a side of boiled New Potatoes (as opposed to Old
Potatoes), and a nice Cabernet Sauvignon, all artistically presented in an
elegant setting for only $54.95. Diners are egalitarian by nature: where
else but in a Diner will you find a construction worker, a tie-wearing
businessman, a tye-dyed Deadhead, and a leather-clad biker, all sitting
elbow-to-elbow at the counter, wolfing down American Chop Suey and trading
insults with the waitress? from Diner 66
The American diner, Everyman's eatery, is slowly disappearing. There are
perhaps half as many diners today as there were in the 1940s. The survivors,
oldtimers with their silver exteriors and Formica ceilings, their steamy windows
and wisecracking waitresses, diners like the New Englander, are still found
primarily on Main Streets and their tributaries in industrial Eastern Cities.
But they have failed to keep up with the times, it is said. They are not now.
It is difficult to define a diner with precision. Technically, and only
technically, it is a factory-built restaurant transported to its site either
intact or in sections, and it has a counter. And that's it. But everyone knows
that a diner is much more than that. It's a place of practicality where the
hallmarks are good and ample-if not fancy-food, friendly prices and quick
service. Diners are unpretentious, comfortable and tolerant places where nobody
holds it against you if you don't wear a tie, or if you do. The owner, in all
likelihood a Greek, can usually be found in the kitchen or at the grill. And the
waitress calls you Hon.
Diners may also be distinguished from other restaurants by what they don't
have: reservations, wine lists, candles, a maitre d' in a tux, plastic flowers
in Perrier bottles and please-wait-to-be-seated signs. There are places with
some of these amenities that call themselves diners, to be sure, places that
also fit the technical definition of being constructed off-site. These are the
Colonial, Mediterranean or contemporary diner-restaurants that have flowered on
suburban boulevards in the past 20 years. Diner buffs, a small but passionate
band, looked askance at these mutants when they first materialized in the 1960s,
but most have now adopted an attitude of benign tolerance.
In the past few years diner aficionados have discerned an even more startling
development: diners have become chic, fashionable, marketable as a
"concept." Stylist eating places in several cities now feature a diner
"look" without diner prices.
Diners are uniquely American. They are a product of our culture, our energy,
our tempo and our style; it was here that they were invented, evolving from
wheeled lunch wagons to stainless-steel "streamliners" to today's
roadside palazzi, and here alone that they flourished. Their numbers and
popularity have always been greatest in the Northeast because that's where the
manufacturers were and are; at one time or another as many as 20 companies built
diners, but now only four do. The buffs know the great diner towns-Worcester,
Syracuse, Providence-and the great diner highways, like Route 22 in northwestern
A case can be made that diners reflect the American character. "They
help define us," says David Slovic, a Philadelphia architect who
collaborated with diner historian Richard Gutman on the splendid book American
Diner. "They exemplify many of the best American qualities: free
enterprise and entrepreneurship, mobility, our love of gadgets and machines-they
were fitted out like a ship with everything in its place-the emphasis on
convenience and, most of all, democracy. The diner is everybody's kitchen."
The diner business has appealed to immigrants. "Diners were a step into
the American dream," declares investment banker Douglas Yorke, a longtime
buff. "The roadside was a route to business success." Even now, when a
new diner-restaurant often represents a $1 million investment, most of the
buyers are ambitious Greek-Americans who are willing to work till they drop.
"Several of them will get together and buy a diner," Mike Kelker says.
"One will be the chef, another the short-order cook, one of the wives will
be the cashier. They'll work constantly, take their meals at the diner and
sometimes sleep in the basement until they start to pay it off."
In an age of cookie-cutter uniformity on the
roadside, diners are stubbornly
individualistic. Though nominally mass-produced, each diner was in fact as
customized original with its own distinct blend of design, colors, equipment and
features. Stools, tiling, windows, the sign, the enamel strips outside-almost
anything could vary. Time and the owner's personality enhanced the differences
until no two were alike.
Diner history, Richard Gutman tells us, began in Providence, Rhode Island, in
1872, when the founding father, a Yankee entrepreneur named Walter Scott,
started dispensing homemade five-cent sandwiches and pies and 30-cent chicken
plates nightly from a horse-drawn lunch wagon. Scott's inspiration proved so
popular that a satisfied customer named Sam Jones copied the idea when he moved
from Providence to Worcester in 1884, and expanded it by inviting the customers
inside. Worcester was a good diner town even then, and Jones soon built a fleet
of wagons fitted with ornamental stained-glass windows.
The lunch wagon's next leap forward was mass production, introduced by a
wide-awake Worcester manufacturer named Thomas H. Buckley, who became known as
the "Lunch Wagon King." His wheeled "White House Cafes" were
marvels of intricate woodwork, mural-covered exteriors and stained-glass
depictions of the Presidents. They efficiently deployed kitchen, stools and
counter in a cart that was only 16 feet long and seven feet high.
Buckley's wagons were wheeled into combat in the war against demon rum in the
1890s when New York City's Church Temperance Society bought several in a
campaign to lure besotted patrons away from saloons offering "free"
lunches. But this moralistic interlude was followed by a descent into unsavory
repute when scores of decrepit old horse-drawn trolleys, rendered obsolete by
electric streetcars, were converted to food wagons. The begrimed ex-trolleys and
their seedy clientele "set many a virgin heart a-shudder," The Diner
magazine reported, and tarnished the nascent diners with a stigma that persisted
It was Patrick J. (Pop) Tierney, a mercantile genius from New Rochelle, New
York, who restored the diner's respectability and transformed diner making into
big business. Tierney was the diner industry's great innovator. He built neat,
state-of-the-art units so efficiently that before long his plant was completing
a diner a day. He sold them on credit and financed the buyers himself, a
practice still followed by diner builders. Instead of lunch wagons, Tierney
called them "dining cars" and "diners," thus linking them to
Americans' love affair with railroads. He is also esteemed by diner chroniclers
as "the man who brought the toilet inside." Tierney was a millionaire
when he died in 1917; his death, awkwardly enough, was attributed to "acute
indigestion" after a diner meal.
In the 1920s and '30s, diners plunged into the American mainstream.
"Booths for ladies" appeared in a bid for the family trade; the ladies
didn't care for stools. The wheels that the builders included were often removed
or covered as diners settled on permanent sites.
Diners reached full throttle just before and after World War II. New
materials like stainless steel and Formica gave the eateries a snappy modern
look, and the popular "streamliner" style gave them dazzle and dash.
Builders began making them in sections in 1941, upping capacity and thus profit.
By 1948, 13 manufacturers were producing 250 diners annually at an average price
of $36,000, the Saturday Evening Post reported, and the average check was
The long downhill slide began in the late 1950s. Fast-food restaurants
appeared, displacing diners as the prime purveyors of cheap meals to those in a
hurry, and the diners' blue-collar faithfuls began to abandon downtown and their
downtown haunts for the suburbs. "Diners didn't keep up with the
times," David Slovic says. "The little towns in New Jersey and
Pennsylvania wanted a McDonald's as a sign they were making it." Diners had
never made serious inroads in the Midwest, West or South, and now it was too
late to try; shipping costs were prohibitive.
A dwindling rear guard of builders fought back by switching to larger, brick-
and stone-sided "diner-restaurants" in the 1960s and '70s. Diners
didn't look like diners anymore, and even the name didn't quite fit; one
longtime manufacturer now calls its products "modular restaurants."
The cost valued upward to its current perch at about $800,000. Diner makers
claim that their new-look "dinerants" are serving more people than
ever, but the number of diners in operation has dwindled from around 6,700 in
1940 to 2,336 last year.
Excerpts from an article by Donald Dale Jackson