When U.S. politicians want to get a feel for the pulse of the country, they’ll often drop in at the nearest diner, a uniquely American institution that has been part of the nation’s cultural landscape for more than a century.
“There’s something about the imagery of the diner, the way it grabs you from the road and the counter,” said Richard Gutman, author of American Diner: Then and Now and director of Johnson & Wales University’s Culinary Arts Museum in Rhode Island. “It just makes you interact in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen in other restaurant environments.”
Other cultures have their own kind of place. France has its bistros and there are pubs in England. The diner is unique to America and attempts to transport the concept overseas have not met with success.
Known as “greasy spoons” for sometimes serving food that sits heavy in the stomach, these unassuming eateries are usually operated by families and the owners can often be found behind the counter, chatting with patrons.
Traditionally made of materials prefabricated in a factory and assembled on site, diners usually have a long narrow shape, tables or booths, and feature a counter where customers can sit and watch as their food is prepared on a grill.
You might expect to find stainless steel, bright colors and flashing neon signs inviting passersby to stop in for a while.
The more modern diners are now built from the ground up on site, but still retain the unique characteristics common to diners everywhere.
“Diners offer a sameness but also a certain individuality at the same time,” said Gutman, who’s widely considered America’s diner expert. “It’s a place where you want to go and have a nice meal and you can linger or you can eat quickly. It’s not going to break the bank and you feel good there and you can participate in dialogue or not.”
Often best known for serving breakfast, diners can also be counted on to serve hearty American standards like hamburgers or meatloaf.
They’re also an excellent place to get a taste of the region’s local flavor.
Maryland is known for its crabs and that means crab cakes are the blue plate special at the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Maryland, a few miles outside of Washington.
The Tastee Diner has been around for almost eight decades, since 1935, and waitress and manager Beth Cox has been serving up meals for 36 of those years.
“It’s the only job I’ve ever had. It just gets in your blood. It’s difficult but rewarding. I’ve waited on four generations of families,” Cox said. “We have multi-millionaires, truck drivers, construction workers. You can be whoever you are, but the minute you walk in the door, you’re all the same, we don’t care who you are.”
There are no computers at the diner, which shows its age in the slightly warped floors and careworn booths. But customers keep coming back for more and Cox says it’s because of the diner’s singular appeal.
GLOSSARY OF DINER SLANG
Eternal twins (ham and eggs)
Adam & Eve on a raft (poached eggs)
Burn the British (English muffin)
Jayne Mansfield (tall stack of pancakes)
Vermont (maple syrup)
Old Maid (prunes)
Chewed fine (hamburger)
Frog sticks (French fries)
Butcher’s revenge (meat loaf)
Eve (apple pie)
Virtue (cherry pie)
Ant paste (chocolate pudding)
Fish eyes (tapioca pudding)
Nervous pudding (gelatin)
Battery acid (grapefruit juice)
Let it float (ice cream soda)
“Nothing comes out of a box or out of a bag,” she said proudly. “It’s all homemade, everything, and you can’t get that in too many places.”
The diner tradition began 130 years ago in Providence, Rhode Island, when horse-drawn lunch wagons would roll in at night when other restaurants were closed.
They’d serve people who worked the evening shift or theatergoers looking for a hot meal after seeing a show. The wagons became so popular that a few seats were added, allowing patrons to eat their meal inside rather than out on the curb.
These lunch cars eventually came to be called dining cars and by 1924, were known as diners.
At the height of their popularity after World War II, there were an estimated 6,000 diners in the United States.
Today there are about 2,000, but Gutman is convinced the diner will never go out of style.
“It’s a great story that’s been part of our culture for 130 years or so,” he said. “It’s an enduring story, that’s why I’ve been doing interviews about diners for decades. I think I’ll be talking about this until my dying breath.”
Gutman points to the recent rise in popularity of mobile food trucks as evidence of the diner’s enduring popularity.
He sees the food trucks as reminiscent of the old diners that started on wheels and eventually outgrew their mobile architecture.
“The diner was the original fast food restaurant,” he said. “That niche of feeding people at lunchtime has re-emerged as an attractive way for young food professionals to reach out to new customers.”
He expects calls for “bales of hay and a mug of murk” (frosted mini wheat cereal and coffee) or “sweep the kitchen” (corn beef hash) to continue to ring out in diners across the country for many years to come.