Quick Tip 44 - A History of the American Diner

Quick Tip 44 - A History of the American Diner

Hello and welcome back as Kitchen Catastrophe’s Diner Month continues! Well, if we’re going to spend a month eating diner food and talking about diners, maybe it’s best we understand what exactly a diner IS; the history of the establishment, the defining features, and the symbolism it holds. Luckily, I’m a huge nerd for history, definition, and artistic symbolism, so you’ve got a great guide to the greasy spoons of yesteryear! Let’s waste no more time and dive right into the American Diner.


Wine and Dine ‘Em

So, what exactly is a diner? Well, that’s a little tricky to nail down, but there are some key points. Firstly, the hours; as we will see, the diner’s history is infused with a singular need: to serve food to those normal restaurants had abandoned. As such, the hours of a diner are certainly not nine-to-five, oh no. Two AM, Midnight, open at 4, open 24 hours, these are true diner numbers. Another point of necessity: coffee. If I can’t get a cup of black coffee at your establishment, whenever I need it, then your diner credentials are seriously in question.


Good. Now throw it out. I don't drink coffee. 

Lastly, is food, and this is more to distinguish between a close brother to the diner, the café. Your food menu should be longer than your drink menu. It should have some heft to it, as well. Entrees with sides should make some form of appearance, versus, say, a panoply of pastries.

There are some who will state the diner must have a certain style, or décor. This point is…not necessarily correct, but we’ll revisit it. Certainly, the ‘diner look’ can help, but it’s not a sure thing.

There are other points that can speak in the favor of a business’s “Diner or Liar” score: counter seating, a visible kitchen, the classic “rail car” design (cutting ahead of myself again), and these are all good for truly great or ‘pure’ diners, but are not necessary components.  Now, let’s learn how we determined the components at all!


A Throwback to the Past

Diners are acknowledged as an American invention, like the Hamburger, and Spaghetti and Meatballs. (Both foods that might be found in a diner, natch.) While some could argue given various definitions, the consensus is that the first diner ever made was built by Walter Scott in 1872. As a young man, Scott had made a small business selling food to late-night workers and men leaving gentlemen’s clubs in the Providence area. (You can tell I got this information from a respectable historical society, since they said “Gentlemen’s clubs”, and not “brothels and bars”, but I assure you, they meant the latter.) Later on, while working for the Providence Journal, Scott would bring extra food to the offices and sell it to his co-workers who were stuck working late on the morning edition, because he was THAT kind of an asshole.

He had this niche because society was still reacting to all the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and a sizable 24 hour workforce was still quite a new phenomenon. As such, young working men found themselves in a situation where they lived alone, and their non-traditional hours made it unusually painful to make culinary mistakes: a man who lunched at noon, if he forgot to pack himself a meal, could step out and buy one. A man who lunched at midnight, had little he could do, beside maybe see if a local “gentlemen’s club” had something hot to eat.  

Midnight believer.jpg

A question FRAUGHT with chances for wacky misunderstandings. 

So, motivated by the money he thought could be made from his fellow night owls, Walter ended up quitting his job at the Journal, and opening up a late-night food cart, built from a horse-drawn wagon. He sold coffee, pie, sandwiches, and eggs. He used the horse to move his cart around, hitting local factories and other businesses he knew were stocked with late-night workers. The business was quite popular, and soon other entrepreneurs got in on the idea, with lunch wagons and diner carts in cities across America. By 1906, there were companies devoted solely to producing diner carts, which had evolved to something more akin to an old travel trailer. Pill shaped, metal exterior, the interior a single kitchen, with one wall an open counter that the customer could order and eat at, these were the ancient ancestor of the modern day fair stall or food truck.


Shine On, you Crazy Diners

By the 20’s, diners were being built like rail cars, and shipped across the nation on the very rail lines. You’d order up a diner, a train would drag it to your town, they’d drop it off and you’d wheel it a short ways off the tracks and start up. Profession by Post. Of course, they were also developing in other ways: the first fully stationary diner was made in 1913.  The aesthetic was the same: the inside was long and narrow, a single main countertop behind which stood the kitchen, the counter set up with stools and the far wall decorated with booths.  

liz west.jpg

Another constant aesthetic: old white people. 

Diners, with their cheap food and simple design, were one of the businesses that weathered the Great Depression with relative ease. Afterwards, they even perked up their look, using flowerboxes to attract female customers, and incorporating stainless steel, formica countertops, and generally attempting to imply a clean, sleek future. Yes, you heard me right: DINERS were once the great symbol of the brave new future.

World War 2, as well as a growing symbolic presence, drove the diner further into the American conscience. Come the 50’s, they exploded, with over 6000 registered across the nation. That’s one per every 500 square miles in the continental US. That may sound like quite the expanse, but consider a highway: if you drove for two hours, you’d come within 2 miles of a diner. And probably a dead body, but that’s neither here nor there.

And consider the highway you should: For, just as the first diners had cropped up to serve the 24 hour work force of the late 1800’s, so too did diners expand to feed the traveling man of early and mid 1900’s. Truckers, traveling salesmen, migrant workers, and people heading west, or east, the nation found itself with millions on the road at all hours of the night, and they needed food and coffee as much as any newsprinter did.

printing room.jpg

I'm not saying it was easy work, mind you, I'm just saying I've never heard of newsprinters needing to take meth or cocaine to do their job correctly.
Sure, Ben Franklin did a ton of blow, but that was unrelated to his work.  

The 50’s were the high-water mark for the diner. The 60’s saw the explosion of the fast food chain, with McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and other luminaries reaching coast to coast. The food was faster, easier. Drive-ins and drive-thrus, growing since the 30’s, joined them. By the 70’s, diners were seen as an artifact of the past. Some capitalized on this, doing retro renovations to better fit the 50’s aesthetic, while others boarded up or renovated into new styles, to avoid associating with that history. And so, the diner faded from its former glory, but it never fully went away.

There are today over 2000 registered diners in America, with 600 of them in the state of New Jersey. But even where they are not, you can find imitators. A quarter mile from my house is a business named Uncle Dave’s Café. It opens at 6, and closes at 7:15. It’s got a pot of coffee on all day, it’ll sell you a meal big enough for two for $6, and it’s got a long bar with counter seats, booths on the far wall, and a window into the kitchen. Is it a diner? Maybe not. As I said, the hours are a little short, and, I mean, it calls itself a café, so that stands for something.

Listen, I know at the start I mentioned I was going to talk about the diner as a symbol as well, but I’m looking at the word count, and know how much of a jaw-jacker I am. (“Jaw-jacker”? Really? Damn, I spent too much mental time in the 30’s for this piece) So I figure best we wrap up here for today, with a full history of the dIner. Next week, for a quick breather, we’ll do a Culinary Compendium of Diner Lingo, and then I’ll do a whole piece on the diner as a symbol of American optimism and idealism. Sound good? No? Well, too bad, because I HOLD SOLE CREATIVE CONTROL OF THE SITE, AHAHAHAHAHAH! WE DO WHAT I WANT HERE!  So drink your black coffees, and get a chunk of Pineapple Cream pie, because we’re on this train till Chicago, baby!