Diners: Fast Food Worth Slowing Down For
Aaaah, the local diner! Throughout New England, these brightly lit establishments are magnets for folks weary of the dull predictability of the fast-food mega-chains. In contrast to the impersonal nature of those billions-serving burger factories, diners are low-key gathering spots where community gossip is shared and politics debated by a gang of regulars assembling each morning. Where waitresses (frequently named Mildred, Blanche, and Edna) wear lace hankies pinned to their aprons and are quick to offer refills on coffee. Where UPS drivers, Methodist clergy, morticians, and middle-school principals perched on adjacent stools know they can score decent hot roast-beef sandwiches or a great piece of fresh fruit pie. And where autumn leafpeepers and other passers-through can inquire about local attractions or find out which nearby motels or B&Bs might still have empty rooms for that night.
The diner’s lineage can ultimately be traced back to horse-drawn lunch carts selling sandwiches and hot coffee along the streets of cities like Providence and Boston beginning in the 1870s. However, the prototypical New England diners are those built from 1906 through 1961 by the Worcester Lunch Car Company: barrel-roofed with colorful porcelain panels on the exterior and plenty of varnished hardwood inside. Other diners came from manufacturers headquartered in New York (DeRaffele) and especially New Jersey (Mountain View, Fodero, Kullman, Paramount, Silk City, O’Mahony, and many more). Each diner-maker trumpeted its own design innovations: streamlined metal exteriors, artful tile work, bits of elegant stained glass, distinctive built-in clocks, and more efficient floor plans. Some diners even came from the factory with all necessary crockery, flatware, and cooking equipment included, so that new owners could begin serving hungry locals on the very day set-up was complete.
Aficionados will be quick to inform you that real diners are roadside eateries whose component parts were fabricated in a factory, then shipped by road or rail for final assembly on-site. Real diners, they’ll insist, always have counters, with at least some cooking done within view of patrons. There’ll almost certainly be booths, too, and a definite blue-collar, no-frills ambience. Unlike their urban or roadside truck stop equivalents, few diners are open 24 hours; many in fact serve breakfast and lunch only, opening very early in the morning (around 6am) and closing around 2 or 3pm.
But not every place with the word “diner” in its name is the genuine article. Many places that call themselves diners are as far removed from the classic prefab as IKEA furniture is from a handcrafted antique, and mavens regard diner-themed restaurants (like Denny’s or Johnny Rockets) with considerable scorn. The smaller, the better, they say, with points deducted for any remodeling that disfigures the original design.
You needn’t care about any of this lore, of course, to enjoy yourself. But after visiting your third or fourth diner, you may begin to notice similarities and differences among them. Curious about a particular establishment’s history? Quiz the owner—more often than not, he or she will be happy to tell you all about the place, which may have started life with a different name in another town and been moved three or more times before it found its current home. Look for a “tag,” the small metal plate (often affixed to the wall over the entry door) listing manufacturer, date, and serial number. The best and most enjoyable way to get to know diners and diner culture is simply to spend time in them, but if you want to learn more, check the authoritative volume, American Diner Then and Now, by Richard Gutman, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.