Diners, or proto-diner establishments, have been a part of American life for more than 140 years now, since a part-time pressman pulled up in front of the Providence Journal office in Rhode Island with a horse-drawn wagon to sell food to his hungry colleagues—a walk-up food establishment more sophisticated than a street vendor. They have played a significant role in art high and low, from Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’ painting to Barry Levinson’s Diner movie. You’d be hard pressed to find a year in American television and film that doesn’t have at least one scene set in a diner. I’d even go so far as to call it the quintessentially American restaurant.
First, let’s define our term. What do we mean by a diner?
Some define diners by their architecture: a freestanding structure, initially wooden and eventually fashioned after Pullman dining cars made of gleaming stainless steel, with lots of glass and more than a few Art-deco-ish accents. But today’s diners come in all shapes and sizes. Sticking to those physical parameters discounts many great diners and the cultural value they hold.
- Operating hours: Diners serve breakfast all day, and are usually, but not always, open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late night snacking.
- A common menu: At the very least they serve pancakes, French toast, eggs, burgers, fries, malts and/or shakes, tuna melts, salads, grilled cheese sandwiches, and many kinds of dessert, from ice cream sundaes to pie to layer cakes to cheesecake. Many of today’s diner menus are notoriously long, including once-trendy food items like quesadillas, wraps, and smoothies.
- A democratic reception: Diners offer the same warm and sassy welcome to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity. Your server is invariably accepting, regardless of the condition you find yourself in when you walk in. My friend Pete Wells, the restaurant critic at the New York Times, says that for a diner to be a diner, it has to be the kind of place where the server calls you “hon.” I’ll disagree on that specific point, but I like the sentiment.
- Quick service: By and large you should be able to be seated immediately when you walk into a diner. I know there are some diners that measure their success by the length of their lines, but that is not a point of pride.
- Low price point: Diners are modestly priced, though what that means exactly depends on the real estate they occupy. What’s more, there is no minimum spend at a diner. You should be able to sit down at a diner and order just a cup of not-great coffee or equally not-great fountain Coke.
- Seating: Diners have both counter and table/booth options.
- Familiarity: Diner staff will at least know your face by your third visit.
- All-occasion places: Diners must rise to many occasions, from first dates to pre- or post-game celebrations by fans or teammates, to wallowing in solitary self-pity. Diners are the best restaurants for planning murders, stick-ups, or other nefarious enterprises.
- Parking: Diners have parking lots, except in hyper-dense places like Manhattan.
- Culinary anonymity: You will probably never learn the name of the chef, or should I say the short-order cook, making your food. Cheffy diners, where the food and prices are “elevated,” are a different breed. See the Empire Diner in New York, the Down-Home Diner in Philly, Diner in Brooklyn, Little Goat in Chicago, and Fog City Diner in San Francisco.
With these criteria, all kinds of establishments can be lumped together with classic diners.