The American diner is important to the social and cultural history of America. It is an unique American institution.

The history of the diner starts in 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island, with Walter Scott. Scott sold small sandwiches, eggs, and other food from his horse drawn wagon to late night industrial workers.

The idea of the diner caught on and soon was manufactured by many companies.

The original diners looked like train trolleys which was a popluar look to the new automobile and speed craze in the 1920s.

Many architectural changes came about throughout the years such as the diner becoming a permanent building, materials used, and styles used.

An important change was the streamlined look. This represented speed and cleanliness.

Today the diner is chic and fashionable and the idea of a nice home cooked meal is coming back.

This is the History of American Diners according to Bill Bryson's "Made In America".
One Walter Scott started selling sandwiches from a wagon parked outside the offices of the Providence Journal (Providence, Rhode Island) in 1872. When he retired 45 years later, the town was full of sandwich wagons. Scott alone had 50 competitors in Providence.
The funny thing is that those wagons were generally called lunch wagons, although lunch was the only meal they did not serve. Government being what it is (even in those times) soon started to enact bans on lunch wagons, which led their operators to simply take off the wheels, and call them restaurants. Already in the 1920s a number of companies were mass producing those new "restaurants", already widely known as "diners".
Apparently you could make a profit of around 12,000$ with a single diner per year, which was a hell of a lot in the 1920s.
It seems that there is a myth that diners were made from old railway cars. This is not true. They were just made to look (almost) like railway cars.
What I like about diners is that they are all different. A diner expresses what his owner wants it to be. He likes Elvis ? He buys Elvis wallpaper.
He does not like you ? He will be sure to let you know.

The diner is the ultimate cranky, individualistic, non-corporate entity.

Diner #1: on Murray St., in Pittsburgh: the cook is an ex-Navy. At the least provocation, he will show you his pictures. The photograph of an F-16 hangs on the wall, slowly turning yellow with grease and age.
Diner #2: the South Side Diner, in Pittsburgh. Well-known locally. "How are y'all ?" --- all the staff seems to come out of a freak show. The cook is very thin and pale and tall, the waitress is very short and very round, the guy that cleans the floor mutters and likes to stare at people.
The fries are good. The wallpaper was clean two years ago, I hope it has got some patina by now.

Every diner is an adventure of its own, a trip into the particularities of the place and of the people that run it.
If there were more diners, I would not even know what McDonald's is.

When I am old, I will open a diner. I will call it "Baffo's Food". It will have exactly 8 tables. I will sell beer to all without a licence. There will be an old, beat up espresso machine and a Bunn industrial coffee machine, and a young man well trained in making coffee. I will bug the customers, and I will try to convince them that espresso is best for ya ! - I will be a happy old man.

1982 Barry Levinson film starring Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin, and Paul Reiser. Set in 1959, it...well, it doesn't "follow" so much as "hangs out with" six Baltimore guys who've been friends all their lives and are trying to cope with the pressures and responsibilities of adulthood. Their haven is the local diner where they eat copious amounts of french fries and gravy and debate issues like whether Mathis or Sinatra is better music to make out to. Levinson has a terrific ear for dialogue, and this film is very good at capturing the feel of those late night, post-adolescent bull sessions with one's pals.

There are several important aspects of an eatery that classify it as a diner. Simply slapping the word "diner" in the name of the establishment doesn't cut it, either. First, there needs to be a long counter with stools at which individual customers can sit and eat. This is ideal for the quick "coffee before work" or "break from work" stop, as well as being convenient for a quick bite; something small like a club sandwich, or a pastry.

Then there are the actual sit-down areas. A true diner should have enough booth seating to accomodate all patrons. Table and chairs don't really work, and they're usually awkward in their placement. You shouldn't find such seating in a diner; booths are a necessity, as illustrated by the next requirement.

Mini-Jukeboxes. At every table. This is the single most important diner element. Not to overlook the necessity of the stools and counter, however, because if a restaurant has one and not the other, it ain't a diner. Traditionally, you have the selections in a window (which are flipped through via a turn-dial at the top), and two rows of buttons at the bottom through which you enter your selection - usually the top row is letters, and the bottom row is numbers. Musical selections aren't really standardized, however Sinatra, Elvis, Jones, etc. seem to be de facto.

And no diner would be complete without a good old-fashioned soda fountain. No, not these mechanical things that you press your cup on the lever and it dispenses soda found at every 7-11 and Circle K in the country. I'm talking about an honest to goodness soda fountain operated by an honest to goodness soda jerk who mixes and carbonates your soda on the spot.

There are also a few extras that aren't required for a diner to be a diner, but add lots of points to the atmosphere.

First, there's chrome, neon, and stainless steel. Lots of it. The sides of the stools at the bar, the railing of the bar, trim along the lights and windows, foot-rails, the mini-jukeboxes; anything short of stuff on which customers sit, or food is served can be made of, or contain chrome. Anything made of glass should have neon reflecting off (or through) it at some angle.

Of course, chrome is also a predominant element in diners that have an automotive theme. These diners typically consist of bright, even deco-like colors, checkered flags, and in some cases, the booths are replaced with classic car bodies. Note, that while many diners contain a floor consisting of a black and white checkered design (which also adds points), that doesn't mean it's an automotive-themed diner.

Then, there are the extreme extras. Things like rollerskating waitresses, window-mounted serving trays for eating in your car, vintage equipment on display (gas pumps, soda machines, and the like), retro memorabilia, and other nice touches. You'll also find that many true diners have atomic elements scattered about. The diner exploded in popularity during the fifties, which was around the same time atomic energy was getting widespread attention (even calling the period "The Atomic Age"), so you'll see the well-known swirls-orbiting-a-nucleus atom design pop up occasionally.

The bottom line is, you can't really call a place a diner without the aforementioned necessities. It has to have a 1950s feel to it, and shouldn't contain even the smallest trace of corporate-owned cookie-cutting. Generally, they're not chain-owned, so each one is going to be pretty different, while still containing the same elements. I have yet to see a diner that is part of a chain or franchise, so I'm pretty much certain that a true diner is individually owned and operated.

Now you have facts to back you up when you walk into an imitation diner and scream "This isn't a diner!" at the staff.

Din"er (?), n.

One who dines.


© Webster 1913.

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