A diner is a prefabricated restaurant building characteristic of North America, especially on Long Island, in New York City, in New Jersey, and in other areas of the Northeastern United States, although examples can be found throughout the US and in Canada. Some people apply the term not only to the prefabricated structures, but also to restaurants that serve cuisine similar to traditional diner cuisine even if they are located in more traditional types of buildings. Diners are characterized by a wide range of foods, mostly American, a casual atmosphere, a counter, and late operating hours. "Classic American Diners" are often characterized by an exterior layer of glimmering stainless steel—a feature unique to diner architecture.
The first recorded diner was a horse-drawn wagon equipped to serve hot food to employees of the Providence Journal, in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872. Walter Scott, who ran the lunch wagon, had previously supplemented his income by selling sandwiches and coffee to his fellow pressmen at the Journal from baskets he prepared at home. Commercial production of lunch wagons began in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1887, by Thomas Buckley. Buckley was very successful and became known for his "White House Cafe" wagons. Charles Palmer received the first patent (1891) for the diner. He built his "fancy night cafes" and "night lunch wagons" in the Worcester area until 1901. In 1906 Philip Duprey and Irving Stoddard established the Worcester Lunch Car Company, which shipped 'diners' all over the Eastern Seaboard. The first manufactured lunch wagons with seating appeared throughout the Northeastern US in the late 19th century, serving busy downtown locations without the need to buy expensive real estate. It is generally accepted that the name "diner" as opposed to "lunch wagon" was not widely used before 1925. Many diners still exist in the Worcester area.
A Bayonne, New Jersey, man by the name of Jerry O'Mahony is credited by some to have made the first "diner".The Jerry O'Mahony Diner Company of Elizabeth, New Jersey, produced 2,000 diners from 1917 to 1952. Only approximately twenty O'Mahony diners are still in existence throughout the United States and in certain parts of the world. In the U.S., the northernmost is Martha's Diner in Coventry, Vermont. The Summit Diner, a 1938 model, is located in Summit, NJ. The oldest southern diner (non–stainless steel style) is believed to be the Hillsville Diner in Carroll County, Virginia. The Triangle Diner, a 1948 stainless steel O'Mahony original model, is located in the old town of Winchester, Virginia and is currently being historically restored to how it appeared in 1948. The Triangle Diner is the oldest stainless steel style O'Mahony diner in the State of Virginia. In 2007 Tommy's Deluxe Diner was moved from Middletown, Rhode Island to Oakley, Utah where it opened as the Road Island Diner. The 50's American Diner is located in Church Gresley, South Derbyshire, England.
One of the original ones displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair, made by Paramount Diners, is still in operation as the White Mana in Jersey City.
As the number of seats increased, wagons gave way to pre-fabricated buildings made by many of the same manufacturers who had made the wagons. Like the lunch wagon, a diner allowed one to set up a food service business quickly using pre-assembled constructs and equipment.
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A diner in Colorado Springs, Colorado
A restaurant-type diner in Bedford, Nova Scotia.
The Bendix Diner in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, is an example of Art Deco style and neon signage.
Interior of the 1938 Sterling manufactured diner in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania - note curved ceiling.
Until the Great Depression, most diner manufacturers and their customers were located in the Northeast. Diner manufacturing suffered with other industries in the Depression, though not as much as others, as people still had to eat, and the diner offered a less expensive way of getting into the restaurant business as well as less expensive food than more formal establishments. After World War II, as the economy returned to civilian production and the suburbs boomed, diners were an attractive small business opportunity. During this period, diners spread beyond their original urban and small town market to highway strips in the suburbs, even reaching the Midwest, with manufacturers such as Valentine.
Greek immigrants founded more than 600 diners in the New York region in the 1950s through the 1970s
In many areas, diners were superseded in the 1970s by fast food restaurants, but in parts of New Jersey, New York, New England, Delaware and Pennsylvania the independently-owned diner remains relatively common. During this period, newly-constructed diners lost their narrow, stainless steel, streamlined appearance, and grew into much bigger buildings, though often still made of several pre-fabricated modules and assembled on site and still manufactured by the old line diner builders. A wide variety of architectural styles were now used for these later diners, including Cape Cod and Colonial. The old-style single module diners featuring a long counter and a few small booths sometimes now grew additional dining rooms, lavish wallpaper, fountains, crystal chandeliers and Greek statuary. The definition of the term diner began to blur as older, pre-fab diners received more conventional stick-built additions, sometimes leaving the original structure nearly unrecognizable as it was surrounded by new construction or a renovated facade. Businesses that called themselves diners but which were built onsite and not prefabricated began to appear. These larger establishments were sometimes known as diner-restaurants.
Like a mobile home, the original style diner is narrow and elongated and allows roadway transportation. In the case of the diner, this is a carry-over from the first "true" diners ever built, which were never intended to remain stationary. The original diners (as opposed to "dining wagons") were actual dining cars on railways. When a dining car was no longer fit for service, it was often employed as a cheap restaurant at a (stationary) location near a train station or along the side of the railroad at some other location.
Later, tradition—along with equipment designed to build railcars—kept this size and shape. In this original floorplan, a service counter dominates the interior, with a preparation area against the back wall and floor-mounted stools for the customers in front. Larger models may have a row of booths against the front wall and at the ends. The decor varied over time. Diners of the 1920s–1940s feature Art Deco elements or copy the appearance of rail dining cars (though very few are, in fact, refurbished rail cars). They featured porcelain enamel exteriors, some with the name written on the front, others with bands of enamel, others in flutes. Many had a "barrel vault" roofline. Tile floors were common. Diners of the 1950s tended to use stainless steel panels, porcelain enamel, glass blocks, terrazzo floors, Formica and neon sign trim.
Diners built recently generally have a different type of architecture; they are laid out more like restaurants, retaining some aspects of traditional diner architecture (stainless steel and Art Deco elements, usually) while discarding others (the small size, and emphasis on the counter).
The Summit Diner in Summit, New Jersey, is a prototypical "rail car" style diner. Built by the O'Mahony Company in 1938.
A prefabricated diner in Salem, Massachusetts, still in use.
Ghosts of the Highways
Diners attract a wide spectrum of the local populations, and are generally small businesses. From the mid-Twentieth century onwards, they have been seen as quintessentially American, reflecting the perceived cultural diversity and egalitarian nature of the country at large.
In the days when diners were America's most widespread 24-hour public establishments, the fact that they were open all night meant they could also serve as symbols of loneliness and isolation. Edward Hopper's iconic 1942 painting Nighthawks depicts a diner and its occupants, late at night. The diner in the painting is based on a real location in Greenwich Village, but was chosen in part because diners were anonymous slices of Americana, meaning that the scene could have been taken from any city in the country-and also because a diner was a place to which isolated individuals, awake long after bedtime, would naturally be drawn. The spread of the diner meant that by 1942 it was possible for Hopper to cast this institution in a role for which, fifteen years earlier, he had used an Automat all-night restaurant.
But as a rule, diners were always symbols of American optimism. Norman Rockwell made his 1958 painting, The Runaway, generically American by placing his subjects, a young boy and a protective highway patrolman, at the counter of an anonymous diner. In television and cinema (e.g. The Blob, Happy Days, and Diner), diners and soda fountains have come to symbolize the period of prosperity and optimism in White America in the 1950s. They are shown as the place where teenagers meet after school and as an essential part of a date. The television show Alice used a "diner" as the setting for the program.
The diner's cultural influence continues today. Many non-prefab restaurants (including franchises like Denny's) have copied the look of 1950s diners for nostalgic appeal, while Waffle House uses an interior layout derived from the diner.
WHAT IS A DINER?: Everyone has an opinion of what really makes a diner a diner. The lines are fuzzy but we have the answer.
Diners provide, in rather the same way that fast food chains do, a nationwide, recognizable, fairly uniform place to eat and assemble. The types of food served are likely to be consistent, especially within a region (exceptions being districts with large immigrant populations, in which diners and coffee shops will often cater their menus to those local cuisines), as are the prices charged. At the same time, diners have much more individuality than fast food chains; the structures, menus, and even owners and staff, while having a certain degree of similarity to each other, vary much more widely than the more rigidly standardized chain and franchise restaurants.
Diners frequently stay open 24 hours a day, especially in cities, making them an essential part of urban culture, alongside bars and nightclubs; these two segments of nighttime urban culture often find themselves intertwined, as many diners get a good deal of late-night business from persons departing drinking establishments. Many diners were historically placed near factories which operated 24 hours a day, with night shift workers providing a key part of the customer base.
The Poirier's Diner and Munson Diner, both manufactured by the Kullman Dining Car Company of Lebanon, New Jersey, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Manhattan was once known for its diners. The Moondance Diner, seen here, was shipped to Wyoming to make room for development.
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American Diners Association
American Diners Association, founded in 1943, provides ample reviews for diners all around the world. They travel from diner to diner usually in packs of 35-40 to review various items on the menu. Chairman Soren Ibsen had this to say about the quality of diners; "I usually don't eat out, but when I do, I prefer a quality diner."
The ADA normally travels from 3-6am, exploring the various diners in a particular area. A supervisor who is on the bus typically calls the diner 30 minutes prior to arrival to ensure that the diner is prepared to seat 35-40 people.
Small diner in Brooklyn
Cuisine and ethnicity
Diners almost invariably serve American food such as hamburgers, french fries, club sandwiches, and so on. Much of the food is grilled, as early diners were based around a grill. There is often an emphasis on breakfast foods such as eggs (including omelettes), waffles, pancakes, and French toast. Some diners serve these "breakfast foods" day round. Many diners have transparent display cases in or behind the counter for the desserts. It is common with new diners to have the desserts displayed in rotating pie cases.
Like the British greasy spoon, the typical American diner or greasy spoon serves mainly fried or grilled food, for example: fried eggs, bacon, burgers, hot dogs, hash browns, waffles, pancakes, omelettes, deep fried chicken, and sausages. These are often accompanied by baked beans, french fries, cole slaw, or toast.
Some dishes at diners are regional. In Michigan and the Ohio Valley at "Coney Island–style" restaurants, coney dogs are served, as are certain types of Greek cuisine like gyros. In Indiana, fried pork tenderloin sandwiches are typically on the menu. The Northeast has more of a focus on seafood, with fried clams and fried shrimp commonly found in Maine. In Pennsylvania, cheesesteak sandwiches and scrapple are fixtures in most diners. In the southwest, tamales. In the southern US, typical dishes include grits, biscuits and gravy, and country fried steak. In New Jersey, the "Taylor Ham, Egg, and Cheese Sandwich" is a staple of many diners.
Coffee is ubiquitous, if not always of high quality. Many diners do not serve alcoholic drinks, although some may serve beer and inexpensive wine, while others—particularly in New Jersey and on Long Island—carry a full drink menu, including mixed drinks.
Typical deserts include a variety of pie, particularly apple and cherry, often on view in a transparent case. Most diners in New York also offer cheesecake.
The food is usually quite inexpensive, with a decent meal (sandwich, side dish, drink) available for one to one-and-a-half hours of minimum-wage income.
Several ethnic influences are strongly present in the diner industry. A large number of diners, especially in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, are owned or operated by Greek Americans. Also, there a large number with Eastern European owners, chiefly Polish, Ukrainian, and Eastern European Jewish. Italian Americans also have a notable presence. These influences can be seen in certain frequent additions to diner menus, such as Greek moussaka, Slavic blintzes, and Jewish matzah ball soup.
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