Setting foot in a diner is setting foot into the American consciousness. As our lives hurtle forward and the world around us moves at an endless manic pace, diners provide a curious relief. There is no rush. You are free to loiter, to drink your coffee, and read your paper. 3 a.m. at an all night diner calls to mind classic noir. A solitary male in the haze of cigarettes and coffee steam. Bright fluorescence, neon and stainless steel. A beacon; a place to go when there is no other. Relief. For late night cabin fever. For last call drunken hunger pangs. For early morning hangovers.
Beginning as horse drawn lunch wagons, catering to hungry workers, diners eventually became stationary, running out of prefabricated buildings, often modelled after railcars or trailers which featured a long counter and a few booths. The prefabricated buildings made diners relatively quick and easy small businesses to establish, especially for immigrant families. After WWII, diners spread beyond cities into suburbs and highways where they continued to be attractive to the working class for their affordable meals and their 24 hour operation made them a haven for truckers and travellers on the highways.
The very longevity and consistency of their business model is a testament to the American diner’s greatness. What’s most interesting is that I can’t bring to mind any big diner chains or franchises. Perhaps there are, but in New York and New Jersey where diners have deep, redwood sized roots, they seem to remain small family businesses. A positive sign, in a time when chain restaurants threaten to monopolize on food. We need mom and pop operations like diners to keep us grounded, to remember where we came from.
Even as more contemporary diners embrace modernity and give classic diner fare a gourmet spin, their blue collar past lingers like a revered and protective spirit. Their familiarity is what gives them their charm. Familiarity provokes comfort, which make diners personal. They’ve become a staple of our culture and they adhere to a formula because it works, because it speaks to us, because we feel welcome there.