Everything You Need To Know About the American Diner
Where did it begin? What's good to eat there? All your questions shall be answered.
A diner is a cozy, humble place to get a home-cooked American comfort meal for cheap, and they are usually open 24 hours. The food is tasty, the restaurant is comfortable, and the atmosphere is like sitting in your own home because you are treated like family from the moment you walk in the door.
While the diner was not created in the state of New Jersey, it is where the diner cemented itself in American culture, mainly because that is where most of them were manufactured. Being originally from New Jersey, diner culture is in my blood, and it is still an important part of life to people in that area. So, sit back and let this Jersey Girl take you on a little tour through this wondrous American tradition.
The diner idea began in the late 1870's with entrepreneur Walter Scott in Providence, Rhode Island. It was a mobile wagon where guests could walk up and take out a simple meal. This practice was by no means new, as people sold food out of wagons and carts around the world for centuries before this period, and they still do today. However, this is the time that is regarded with the first inklings of the diner concept. A little while later, the wagon would be dubbed the "lunch wagon". In the early 1900's, Patrick Tierney was credited with popularizing the term "diner" and he created the classic look of the restaurants, inspired by dining cars from trains.
Diners eventually became stationary and boomed all throughout the northeastern part of the United States. Jerry Mahoney from New Jersey made the first stationary diner in 1913 and he ran companies that manufactured and shipped prefabricated diners out across the US. It was not until the 1960's completion of the Interstate roadway system that diners became popular all around the country as Americans took to long road travel. The decade of the 1950's is where you might recognize the classic American diner themes that include iconic imagery like enormous tail fin Cadillacs parked outside and girls in poodle skirts dancing around to Elvis playing on the jukebox. We are sticking around the traditional diner for now, which is the heart of all of that. You can still find humble little diners scattered all across the country, but now they are a dying breed.
Inside, you will usually find a long counter with stools and several small booths. In modern times, diners have expanded into larger restaurant-type structures to accommodate more customers. They have also long since gone commercial and large chain companies such as Denny's and Ihop have taken over the industry. Still, there is no better place for a quick, home-cooked meal outside of your own kitchen than a classic family-owned diner.
Even though they began as a way to grab a quick bite, diners morphed into a place to relax and take time to enjoy a meal with good company. You don't need to be in a hurry. There are no fills there. The best ones don't appear to look like much from the outside, because inside you will find modest decor and an intimate setting. So, whether you are driving through small towns in Pennsylvania or the outskirts of New Mexico, you are sure to find a cozy little diner to rest on your travels.
What kind of food can you get at a diner? The short answer is - a little bit of everything within the realm of American cuisine. Traditional hamburgers and fries, club sandwiches, patty melts, tuna melts, roast beef, meatloaf, hearty soups like chili and chicken noodle, and don't forget breakfast! Many diners serve breakfast all 24 hours of operation and this is what I would recommend. If you have never had breakfast for dinner, here is a chance.
Photo by Serge WM via Google.
There are so many options to the American breakfast that it's worth a shot at playing the "breakfast game" like our friends below, where you try and order the full breakfast without the waiter asking additional questions. But if you are a regular, chances are they already know your order.
The choices are plentiful! Eggs can be prepared however you like, with various types of toast, sausage, bacon, and potatoes (get the hash browns!) Then there are pancakes, waffles, and french toast, all nice and fluffy, and made from scratch. The coffee is endless and always kept full in your cup. At a diner, you can order anything you are in the mood for!
A classic club sandwich. Credit: https://metrodiner.com/menus/lunch-menu/
Lastly, are all of the desserts. Malts, milkshakes, sundaes, and pies galore are always available for the picking. Why not have a nice helping of apple pie or share a sundae at the table? Diners almost always have a packed display case of fresh baked goods including pies like chocolate silk, banana creme, and blueberry; muffins, bagels, cookies, and so much more await your appetite. You are more than welcome to take a seat at the counter with a cup of coffee and a slice of blueberry pie and stay awhile. Whatever you want, the diner has it.
Original photo by Rhoda Boone, found at https://www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/history-of-diner-rice-pudding-dessert-american-article
If you visit the United States, be sure to check out a humble diner. They can be found in any state, though I recommend visiting one in New York or New Jersey for that old school experience. They might not look like much, but you can anticipate a cheap and hearty meal!
Photo by Peter Bond on Unsplash. Empire Diner, New York, NY