Diners are a uniquely American form of casual restaurant, manufactured centrally, delivered and installed in cities and by roadsides. During the peak years of the American diner, the 1950s, more than 6,000 diners gave refuge and solace to Americans in all parts of the country. Those that survived the era of franchised fast food are now well patronized; newly built retro-diners cash in on the penchant for the fixtures and fittings of a bygone age.
One of the great legends of American food is that the first diners were created from railroad dining cars. This is simply not so, but it is an understandable mistake, since many diners were manufactured in the shape of dining cars. By the time decommissioned streetcars and trolleys came to be converted into diners during the 1940s and 1950s, the diner was already well established. A true diner is manufactured at a factory and shipped to its site. Though diners would eventually become elaborate, in its purest form, the diner was a restaurant that was inexpensive to open, and equally inexpensive to visit.
Walter Scott began operating his distinctive lunch wagon in Providence, Rhode Island in 1872; the wagons soon grew popular in the New England States, leading to the founding of a number of manufacturing companies, particularly in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts. The lunch wagons began a tradition that survives to this day of offering inexpensive food, quickly prepared, without the fuss of a restaurant, usually with longer hours.
As lunch wagons grew more elaborate, adding seats, counters, and tables as well as decorations, the classic diner came into being, eventually settling down to stationary sites (as the restaurants grew in size). By the 1930s, a streamlined, hyper-modern look called “moderne” came into vogue; by the 1950s, gleaming chrome and neon represented the diner inside and out. Diners took on many types of decoration from the 1960s onward, some of it tastelessly overdone (faux-brick and flagstone walls, for example). Today some diners, particularly in the northeastern states, function as large family restaurants; though not pre-fabricated, many are open 24 hours and serve general American menus (with occasional Greek or Italian specialties), hence functioning in the mode of a diner.
Typical of a classic, the Boulevard Diner in Worcester, Massachusetts, manufactured by the Worcester Lunch Car Company in 1936, still serves burgers, eggs and sandwiches 24 hours a day and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mickey’s in St. Paul Minnesota, also on the National Register, has operated in art deco splendor for more than 60 years. The Windsor Diner in Windsor, Vermont, going strong since 1958, is also on the National Register. Many classic diners have been rehabilitated and restored.
The 1982 Barry Levinson Film Diner, set in 1959, chronicles the adventures of a group of young men whose social fulcrum is a busy diner. Since Levinson could not find an appropriate 1950s chrome and glass diner for the film, he tracked a castoff diner down in New Jersey, had it shipped to Baltimore, and saw to its detailed restoration as the Fells Point Diner before using it in Diner and several other films. The film made stars of most of its young actors, but especially of the diner itself.
The look and feel of the American diner is alive and well in newer restaurants. The 66 Diner in Albuquerque, New Mexico is resplendent in 1950s chrome and neon, with a classic black and white tiled floor, a jukebox, and a team of waitresses in retro-1950s dresses. The Denny’s chain of family restaurants, with 1600 locations, most open 24 hours, follows a format and has a look that pays homage to the classic diner, as do the Silver Diner chain in Washington, DC and surrounding areas, California’s Ruby’s chain, Johnny Rockets, with outlets in 27 states, and many more chains and independents.