A Field Guide To The True American Diner
October 14, 2014 6:55 AM   Subscribe

 
Back in college, there was a nearby Chinese restaurant that was our favorite place in the world. The food was just OK (though super cheap), but what really sold it was the fact that the building it was in was an old-school, chrome-sided diner. They had moved in ages ago after the old diner closed, and hadn't done any kind do renovation or redecoration other than hanging up a few red paper lanterns. The overall effect, eating general tso's chicken and fried rice at a padded fake leather booth in an old-school diner, was disorienting and wonderful. We used to call it the China Diner.
posted by Itaxpica at 7:00 AM on October 14, 2014 [4 favorites]


In conclusion, George Pelecanos.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:04 AM on October 14, 2014 [4 favorites]


If you have not heard Martin Sexton's ode to Diners, you should. (Fans of Scrubs may recall it from here.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:04 AM on October 14, 2014


We did not free ourselves from England's cruel yoke to have static pie.

Always, always twirling toward freedom.
posted by General Tonic at 7:05 AM on October 14, 2014 [18 favorites]


From the Awl comments: Roadside Diners Online. Kind of an awesome site about same. Great article WhelkO!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:05 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


PS this is the best diner.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:07 AM on October 14, 2014


I miss true diners in the style of NJ. The kind of place you show up to at 4AM after a night of carousing and slowly tend to your growing hangover with fries, coffee, and a plate of breakfast food. Surrounded by the strange and confused and lonely, you and your friends shoot the shit till your voices grow hoarse. Occasionally one person will leave the table to go out for a smoke, this is normal. The coffee never stops flowing and is often accompanied with the question "Top if off for ya hun?"

You leave when the sun starts to come up and the normal breakfast crew comes in. Out into the glaring sun and make your way back home.
posted by Ferreous at 7:11 AM on October 14, 2014 [8 favorites]


I'm from Long Island; it stands to reason that diners have been an awfully big part of my life. My go-to breakfast is still a cup of coffee, matzo ball soup, and a chicken salad sandwich. Because I can.

I do miss the tabletop jukeboxes (two volume settings: too-low and too-loud) that persisted until at least the early 2000s. Can't say I miss the smoking sections, though (which isn't to say I was above the occasional Parliament with my late-night coffee).

Most of the diners around here have been renovated in the last couple of years, scrubbing out the last nicotine stains and brightening the chrome, but the idea is the same as it's always been. Hopefully they'll still be there fifteen or twenty years from now, so I can slip my daughter an extra ten bucks (or, I suppose, hundred, by then) for some cheese fries at the end of the night.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:13 AM on October 14, 2014


On our recent trip through New England, we went to what the locals call the "Whately Diner," in Western Mass.

A gorgeous building and good food, good service, and friendly people.
posted by Jahaza at 7:14 AM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]


I do miss the tabletop jukeboxes (two volume settings: too-low and too-loud) that persisted until at least the early 2000s.

Whately Diner still has them!
posted by Jahaza at 7:14 AM on October 14, 2014


Had the pleasure to visit AlMac's in Fall River with my wife and GenjiAndProust on our way to a meetup - it's just as charming in person as in the photos, and the meatloaf sandwich is a thing of majesty.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:15 AM on October 14, 2014


The best thing about NYC is that Diners still exist here in relatively pristine (ie dirty as fuck) condition, especially in Queens. Heck we even have a few functioning Luncheonettes in the Flatiron District which are the best source of cheap lunch omelets on earth.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:19 AM on October 14, 2014


In college I used to make the 45 minute drive from southern Vermont to the Whately diner at 2am because, aside from the local PriceChopper, it was the only place anywhere nearby open all night. I loved that place.
posted by The Man from Lardfork at 7:21 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


If it's cool I'm just going to hang out in this thread all day reading the paper and drinking coffee...
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:22 AM on October 14, 2014 [11 favorites]


All of the diners around my Long Island hometown closed down :( Our theory is that latter-generation children of the Greek owners aren't interested in the family business and whoever bought them didn't have the magic to keep them going.
posted by bleep at 7:23 AM on October 14, 2014


PS this is the best diner.

Word. One of the only bright spots of my time in D.C. One time my girlfriend discovered a cockroach in her hash browns. And yet I still remember that place fondly.

I think you can surmise, my life was not thriving in D.C.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:26 AM on October 14, 2014 [4 favorites]


We were at a diner two days ago. Got in with the morning rush and sat at the counter right behind the grill. It's sort of hypnotic to watch the grill cook do his things. Slowly churning away tickets, cursing under his breath about mistakes on orders, hassling the kitchen staff to reload the line.

Sometimes it's good to see how the sausage is made.
posted by Ferreous at 7:31 AM on October 14, 2014


Diners always make me think of my dad. After my parents broke up, Friday dinner was usually spent with my dad driving to a different New Jersey or Eastern Pennsylvania diner. At the time in the seventies , there seemed to be a diner in every town and at every highway intersection so we didn't have to repeat too often. I usually had a cheeseburger and he usually got the swiss steak.
posted by octothorpe at 7:32 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


shoutout for The Majestic in Atlanta
I loved that place, even if the food quality was a little uneven
posted by thelonius at 7:38 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


There was a diner in Richardson, TX. The town itself had long been subsumed into the great amorphous mass that was the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. The diner had been there since the 70's and progress, chain stores, strip malls et al, had come over it like a wave. It was still there though, a time capsule of furnishings and carpet. The pictures on the wall of diner looked like the cliches that put up in every TGIFriday's and Applebee's, but on further inspection showed the history of the small town that became part of a big city.

I used to go to First Saturday, a late night electronics swap meet that took place in downtown Dallas. I would spend all night buy RAM out of the back of a van, and looking at blue LED key chains, and then head back home, stopping first at the diner, for biscuits and gravy, sausage and eggs. Then back home to drift off to sleep, still smelling the cigarettes and coffee.
posted by zabuni at 7:49 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


The shout-out to Waffle House is what lent this article the credibility it needed.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:58 AM on October 14, 2014 [5 favorites]


The artist James Gurney (previously on metafilter) has recently been posting some paintings of American diners on his blog.
posted by The River Ivel at 7:58 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hello, I am a pedant from California and I care about the use of the term "field guide".
posted by kenko at 7:59 AM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]


It is a fallacy, though, that only chain diners have those tableside jukeboxes. Long Island diners (which also seat more than 65 people and often have sections not in use) are littered with them.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:06 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


On our recent trip through New England, we went to what the locals call the "Whately Diner," in Western Mass.

A gorgeous building and good food, good service, and friendly people.


I went to college in Amherst, and a late-night trip to the Whately Diner was in order at least once a week. Wonderful memories.
posted by xingcat at 8:08 AM on October 14, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm just going tore-post here what I posted in the projects posts, with the additional thought that "We did not free ourselves from England's cruel yoke to have static pie." is one of the greatest constructs of our beautiful language I have seen in many a month.

The Greek thing is true, even in Texas. There was a small holdout on N. Lamar here in Austin for the longest time -- they hung on & hung on, even after the By George, the Whole Foods headquarters, the Chicos & the REI all moved in to their formerly-local, downscale strip. It had six barstools at the counter, two 4-tops & three 2-tops. The family that ran the place fought like cats & dogs, in Greek, all the day long, but their hash browns were the stuff of legend. When the G&M Diner got taken over by hipsters, renamed the SomeBullshitBistro & larded with their motherfucking arugula, Austin died for me.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:12 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


iirc Ritter's diner in Pittsburgh features tableside jukeboxes and so do lots of newer, (but not new) jersey diners. They're not just a chain thing.
posted by Ferreous at 8:13 AM on October 14, 2014


Lim's Cafe in my hometown is literally 1/2 an old-fashioned Chinese restaurant and 1/2 an old-fashioned diner, cottage cheese and all. Unfortunately I couldn't find any good photos of the interior, but in the linked article you can just barely see the diner through the lefthand windows and the Chinese decor through the rightmost.

It still does pretty good business, all things considered.
posted by muddgirl at 8:14 AM on October 14, 2014


My father ended up going to a trade school and going into electronics engineering design, but it was totally as a "I need to make money doing something" kind of job and it wasn't really his passion. He often had weekend breakfast-making duty, though, and over the course of my growing-up gradually got more and more into cooking, and now he does nearly all the cooking now that my parents are retired. (Dude pretty much turned into a foodie.)

Sometimes I wonder whether Dad shouldn't have maybe gotten a job as a short-order cook in our neighborhood diner instead - he probably would have absolutely loved it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:15 AM on October 14, 2014


Hello, I am a pedant from California and I care about the use of the term "field guide".

I would suggest that, with a copy of this article in hand, one in the field would be able to distinguish whether the eating establishment in view was a True American Diner or not. It serves the purpose.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:15 AM on October 14, 2014 [4 favorites]


New Jersey diners are the only true diners. They filled up a surprisingly large portion of my high school social life - too young to go to bars, but old enough to have drivers licenses and a yearning to be out all hours of the night, the diners were a place where we could cheaply hang out for hours and hours, getting super wired on coffee and pie.

Last time I visited the area I grew up in, most of the diners had closed. It was a little disappointing.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:16 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


A true American diner is a jewish deli.
posted by mullacc at 8:17 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Whately is also usually filled with Québécois truck drivers, so that's an additional plus.
posted by SPUTNIK at 8:17 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


Growing up, I used to love going to the diners in NJ on visits to see family up there. My relationship with my dad was always a bit strained, but visiting some of his old haunts never failed to get the stories flowing, and we'd find some common ground. Unfortunately, as I got older I became unable to deal with the cigarette smoke, and on the last few trips we took together during my college years I had to get up and wait in the car. I'm probably over-analyzing, but among all of the ridiculous misunderstandings related to that period of our lives, those moments really stuck with me, partly because I could tell he saw it as a rejection even though it wasn't meant as one, and partly because I didn't care. Anyway, all these years later, I'd dearly love to hit some of those diners with he and my sons now that everything is smoke-free. Hopefully, there will be a wedding to go to rather than a funeral.
posted by gimli at 8:19 AM on October 14, 2014


American style diners are the one aspect of American culture I wish we bloody well would import. I can do without aggressive policing, ruinous health insurance and military adventurism, but the UK would be a better place if there was a place to get coffee and pancakes with a few friends late at night. Because right now the only option is pubs, really.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:19 AM on October 14, 2014


I've never even seen a table-side jukebox outside of a vintage-style non-chain Diner Diner.
posted by bleep at 8:20 AM on October 14, 2014


I've never even seen a table-side jukebox outside of a vintage-style non-chain Diner Diner.
There's a bar in DC, Lyman's Tavern, that has these (with some very weird/obscure recordings to boot). It's a pretty neat place. IIRC the venerable Wright's Dairy-Rite in Staunton, VA has them as well, but it's been a while since I've been there.

For me, though, "true American diner" just makes me think of my experiences growing up in northern Virginia. Diners were the coolest thing ever, even Silver Diner. Until I went to high school in Annandale and started frequenting Barnside Diner with my fellow students. We love the place - because hey, suburbs + 24/7 is a winning combination, and it even stays open during hurricanes/snowpocalpyses/derechos - but it's also kind of terrifying. Last time I was there the toilet seat had fallen off, and I had to pick it up and put it back on the toilet. There's also 29 Diner where we once showed up completely drenched after a thunderstorm during an outdoor concert and they just asked if we were okay and then seated us, business as usual. I don't think either of these has the rotating pies, more's the pity.
posted by capricorn at 8:30 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes! Ritter's! That place was awesome. Also: The Candlelight and Dix Hills diners. Also: the Cobble Hill Coffee Shop. And Curly's in North Beach, SF, circa 2005, doing as best it could in a chicken apple sausage world.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:30 AM on October 14, 2014


t backseatpilot: It really is the quintessential jersey experience. Spending 4+ hours just talking with friends and drinking gallons of diner strength coffee. Watching cars drive down the road through the windows, (best when in the rain and their headlights would glitter like jewels through the rain coated glass), listening to little snatches of conversations from other booths, hearing sad or beautiful bits of somebody's life, and finally that wonderful/wretched feeling when the sun came up and you knew it was time to go but that you would all be back there again soon.

That's one of things that I miss most about NJ.
posted by Ferreous at 8:32 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


We used to imagine that there was a secret island in Greece that was nothing but diners. That's where the red leatherette and chrome barstools grow and the sparkly formica quarries can be found. The families who live there all cook, all day long, and every so often they gather and send off a diner complete with staff. There's a lot of shouting, because shouting on Diner Island is love. We will know the apocalypse is nigh when all the American diners rise up one night, unmoor themselves and float back off to Greece, jettisoning tiny packages of mixed fruit jelly and creamer as they go.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:43 AM on October 14, 2014 [25 favorites]


A real diner is one of the few places where anyone can get called "hon," and it's not a put down of any sort.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:44 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Some of my fondest memories are from diners: cucumbers in cream sauce, the choice of mysterious pink beets (sliced; canned), side salads with croutons and Thousand Island dressing studded with relish. My mother always got liver if it was on the menu, because we threatened to mutiny if she ever cooked it at home again, and my father is a walking encyclopedia of reuben sandwiches across the central Eastern seaboard. Milkshakes too large to fit in a glass. York patties worth a nickel by the cash register.

There's a place not too far from here that succeeds on having a menu laminated and longer than a baby, and they have enormous pancakes and milkshakes to boot, but somehow it's still too Californian. There are multigrain options. (The other diner-esque institution, or maybe better "inspired by diners" in the Hollywood tradition, has quinoa burgers and sprouts and milkshakes that top out at 16 ounces. It's tasty, but t's like eating at a diner designed by aliens.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:45 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


I will here pour out a chipped china cup of burned, bitter coffee for the late Pig 'N Whistle diner in Allston or maybe Brighton, Mass. (kind of greater Boston, I guess). Not good food, but a great place.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:45 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


When I first moved to the USA, my new flatmates quickly introduced me to the Rosebud diner, handily in stumbling distance from both local bars in Davis Square in Somerville, and likewise stumbling distance from home. The surly waitresses and excellent food made that place rapidly become a favorite of mine.

Now I hear it closed, and has re-opened as some sort of trendy place, which I am entirely unhappy about.
posted by themadthinker at 8:51 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've never even seen a table-side jukebox outside of a vintage-style non-chain Diner Diner.

Candlelite Inn in Grand Prairie, Texas.

At least it was in Grand Prairie when I was a kid. It seems the municipal boundary may have moved, and it is now in Arlington.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:52 AM on October 14, 2014


I am now craving creamed chipped beef on toast.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:55 AM on October 14, 2014


I didn't click on Potomac Avenue's link because I was like "Whatever this is, it's just some diner that's not as good as Tastee Diner."
posted by escabeche at 8:57 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


I love me some Whelk, and this is awesome. That said, this:

“In the east, True American Diners are located either in the downtown area or just off a major road leading into it. In the west, diners are more likely on highways in between towns, merging with that other American institution, the truck stop.”

... this seems to refer very loosely to "the west," or refers perhaps to "the midwest," which seems quite rationally to be "the west" to anybody whose life is centered on or near the east coast, but which is actually very, very far from "the west," where diners can often be centrally-located. The three western cities I think of most as "diner towns" are Las Vegas, LA and Denver; all three give pride of place to diners, in the classic style, although of course western cities are much less centralized than eastern cities. There are so many great diners in Denver, my favorite being Pete's Kitchen – Pete is Greek, of course, and that part of the article is dead on, Greeks own a vastly disproportionate amount of the best diners – with their iconic sign.

Oh, and here's a thing: eastern cities have a common form factor for diners that I don't see followed anywhere else, really, although my experience with the south is limited. There is this standard diner layout: long, train-car-like, often made of an actual train car or bus set down on the ground, with booths on one side and a counter on the other and the kitchen back behind the counter. This seems like something of a standard diner layout in New York and New Jersey – it's even the layout (as far as I can tell) of the diner in the illustration for this article. But I haven't been in many (perhaps any?) diners elsewhere that follow this form factor. They're square and boxy, or they're big and roomy, but never this long thing that eastern diners often are. I guess it makes sense – the long rectangle never was an efficient use of space for a restaurant, exactly; but it is really iconic for a particular type of old diner that thrives in the east, I think. I am not sure.
posted by koeselitz at 8:58 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Most early diners were literally juiced up mobile homes. Made to be hauled into a place on a truck and set down.
posted by Ferreous at 9:02 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm happy to see that our local Lake Effect is almost a Platonic diner. It misses in that you don't pay at the register, and if I'm honest with myself it would benefit from at least one or two matronly hon-saying staff instead of the black-clad college girls.

The beef on weck was fucking spectacular, though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:02 AM on October 14, 2014


Pig 'N Whistle diner in Allston or maybe Brighton, Mass.

I used to live near there, but I've only ever known it as a derelict building. Until I watched the original Thomas Crown Affair and realized the diner they filmed in front of was right down the street from me!
posted by backseatpilot at 9:15 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh, and also:
I was always uh, kinda one who'd like consider myself kind of a pioneer of the palate, a restauranteur if you will. I've wined, dined, sipped and supped in some of the most demonstrably beamer-epitomable bistros in the Los Angles metropolitan region. Yeah, I've had strange looking patty melts at Norms. I've had dangerous veal cutlets at the Copper Penny – well, what you get is a breaded salsbury steak in a shake-n-bake and topped with a provocative sauce of Velveeta and, uh, half-n-half... smothered with Campbell's tomato soup. See I have kinda of a uh... well I order my veal cutlet.. Christ, it left the plate and it walked down to the end of the counter. I turn and say, 'waitress, see my –' read, boy, she's wearing those rhinestone glasses with the little pearl thing clipped on the sweater – My veal cutlet come down, tried to beat the shit out of my cup of coffee... Coffee just wasn't strong enough to defend itself...
cf.
posted by koeselitz at 9:15 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


American style diners are the one aspect of American culture I wish we bloody well would import.

If you're ever in SW London, try Pickle and Rye in Sheen, about 100 yards from Mortlake Station. Run by a couple of expat Americans, it is the nearest thing to real diner food I've found over here. They don't keep diner hours, it looks more like a cafe, and it does tend to fill up with mummies and buggies, but it's a pretty decent place.

When I work in NYC (which is not as often as I'd like) I rather like the Westway on 9th. Last time I was there, after a gap of nearly 18 months, the waiter asked me if I wanted "the usual". And he got it right. And I watch them looking after the elderly and slightly (sometimes more than slightly) strange regulars. It is great institution.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 9:16 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Mm, jetlagaddict, there are definitely classic diners in LA. LAist has a list (which rather unfortunately mixes the 'quinoa burgers and celebrity sightings' with the 'owned by Greeks who give no fucks' styles).

Of that list, I've only been to the Pantry and hooboy the Pantry. Infamously closed as close to 'never' as possible, owned by a former mayor, and service that is crabbier than Parisian waiters.

For the most part, Southern California has torn down its old diners but there are definitely exceptions. If I had to guess, I'd say San Bernardino/the Inland Empire probably still has some hanging around but it's been a while (thankfully) so I couldn't tell you where anymore.
posted by librarylis at 9:20 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I visited Randy's Restaurant by Boeing Field in Seattle this weekend and am happy to report is is officially a Diner. They also have wifi, which seems a slight challenge their authenticity but they also have a hit counter on their website (comic sans, natch) so I believe those cancel each other out.
posted by bizwank at 9:22 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


officially a Diner [...] their website

Diners have payphones, not websites.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:36 AM on October 14, 2014 [10 favorites]


My Tastee Diner order of choice is the hamburger sub -- two patties on a sub roll with lettuce, tomato, plenty of mayo. Have never had it anywhere else. It would seem a kind of betrayal.
posted by escabeche at 9:44 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm from NJ, long since moved away. In my personal narrative, Peak Diner was when I was 17, and could drive to the local diner at 2am after whatever it is we were doing and meet up with other friends who had finished whatever they had been doing. It's the only time I've experienced a third place that felt natural.

Sometimes a couple friends go back to that diner at the holidays and we just sit and watch kids repeat the cycle. I assume the 40 year olds who we ignored when we were teenagers were doing the same thing, with the same mix of nostalgia and relief.
posted by nev at 9:53 AM on October 14, 2014


A skillet breakfast The Waverly Diner was the first meal I had after moving to NYC, and while they've "modernized" in the last few years they somehow did so in a way that made it a slightly fancier version of their original 70s decor, like it was a pokemon that evolved.

Disco fries > Poutine.
posted by The Whelk at 9:56 AM on October 14, 2014


Diners have payphones, not websites.

Ok but payphones also have websites now. Everything gets a website. Hell, in Seattle every fall they have a program where you can adopt the storm drain in front of your house and then you're responsible for keeping it from getting clogged up with websites and flooding the street. At least they're compostable, thanks to bit rot...
posted by bizwank at 10:01 AM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]


I do miss the tabletop jukeboxes (two volume settings: too-low and too-loud) that persisted until at least the early 2000s.

Whately Diner still has them!


So does the Downsview Diner, for Toronto folks. Keele about a block north of Wilson, east side--2900 Keele or so. Betty's the octogenarian owner who makes THE BEST milkshakes and THE BEST rice pudding along with her equally doddering husband who runs the grill and the fry baskets.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:02 AM on October 14, 2014


The best diners in NYC are in the outer boroughs, like the Neptune in Astoria or the Seville in Douglaston.
posted by jonmc at 10:09 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Jackson Hole diner in Ditmars is also the best because of reasons.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:14 AM on October 14, 2014


escabeche I feel that we must have met there at some point. After my shift as a cook I would slump in there around 2. Smoke 15 cigarettes and drink coffee and eat their mysteriously delicious non-homemade pie. Usually alone, until I met all the regulars. At the time the only bar was the Quarryhouse. Ugh nowadays its probably full of yuppies apres tapas.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:21 AM on October 14, 2014


The late lamented Round The Clock Diner off Astor Place used to let you have a burger with waffles instead of buns if you asked nicely at 3 AM cause you just got done performing at RiFiFi's (also late, lamented, etc) and you can barely form sentence word sounds.
posted by The Whelk at 10:26 AM on October 14, 2014


burger with waffles instead of buns

I want to go to there
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:28 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


As a Californian who has spent enough time on the East Coast to know that real diners do not exist in California, this thread makes me hungry and sad.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:29 AM on October 14, 2014


I grew up in Albany, my mom was from NJ, and Dad's favorite past time was long drives ending in a meal somewhere. So I have a lot of diner experience. I am a pretty big fan of the Highland Park right up the street. Best milkshakes ever. And look at the inside!

I miss the Miss Albany, though...
posted by oflinkey at 10:39 AM on October 14, 2014


In LA we still have some Cafe 50s, although the one which resembled a diner most was the now-closed branch in Hermosa Beach.

But in general, it's a truth -- few diners in California. However, some unrenovated Googie coffee shops still exist, which were an evolutionary advancement, transcending the mere diner. There were also Googie drive-ins, and some branches of Mel's are still open in Northern California -- they even opened one in an old Googie in Sherman Oaks.
posted by Rash at 10:53 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


When I think of diners I think of two of my faves back when we lived in the Twin Cities: the legendary Mickey's Diner and the superb Cecil's Deli.
posted by Ber at 10:54 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


escabeche I feel that we must have met there at some point.

My home Tastee was the Bethesda Tastee, so if you were cooking there in the late 1980s and were like, why are these high school nerds hanging around here all night, can they not find dates? Yeah, that was me. And no, we couldn't.
posted by escabeche at 11:01 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Stella's Diner in Chicago on Barry and Broadway. I lived down the block and went there at least once during the week and for breakfast on the weekend. Headed by a larger-than-life matron Stella and her big Greek family. Simple, to-the-point diner food. Strong iced tea. Stella has since passed away and I think her children still run the joint. My favorite meal was iced tea and then tuna salad on toasted bread with onion rings. I miss Chicago.
posted by ao4047 at 11:05 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I feel like Mel's, despite being self-consciously retro and clinging so hard to its placement in American Graffiti it's like a radical re-imagining of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane as a chain restaurant - it's the closest you can kinda get in California and takes on a weighty mid-century pathos when you're eating in one literally on Sunset Boulevard.

Plus they got good curly fries.

(the one in SF's Meteron is like, oddly shitty tho.)
posted by The Whelk at 11:05 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I didn't click on Potomac Avenue's link because I was like "Whatever this is, it's just some diner that's not as good as Tastee Diner."

I don't get it, lovers of the SS Tastee. From their website:
"Diner moved in 2003. Interior largely gutted and mostly used as a foyer for an expanded restaurant." Therefore, if you want an authentic Tastee diner experience, it's not in Silver Spring. Instead, either off to the one out towards Fairfax (which is nice to look at, but their food's awful IMO) or the Laurel branch, where I've never eaten (photos) - but for the very best DC diner experience, take a day trip out to Skyline Drive and stop at the Frost, along the way in Warrenton.
posted by Rash at 11:06 AM on October 14, 2014


On my 21st birthday around 3 in the morning, I suddenly became aware of my surroundings inside the Omega Diner.

In grad school I spent a lot of Sunday mornings with friends at this one diner on 206, in large part to see our favorite waitress, who was this awesome Greek-American lesbian with a dark tan, bright green eyes and a wicked sense of humor. Sometimes she would leave us the whole pot of coffee and we would refill our cups until we could feel the blood rushing to the back of our brains. Sadly she stopped working there and we lost touch, and we eventually moved to the West Coast, but I hope she's doing well.

Attn diner aficionados: what are my options in the SF area? All I know is Boulevard in Daly City and I've always had too big a group to actually get seated there (okay, I was going with an entire softball team so that one's on me).
posted by en forme de poire at 11:15 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think the SF analogue to the Mid-Atlantic diner would be a taqueria? There's a Mel's on Van Ness that's only moderately okay and a few joints in the Tenderloin that belong to the off-shoot "breakfast counter/greasy spoon." genus.
posted by The Whelk at 11:20 AM on October 14, 2014


A real diner is one of the few places where anyone can get called "hon," and it's not a put down of any sort.

The few places = a diner, and wherever my mom is living at the time.

For NoVa people, shout out for City Diner, the Royal, and La Casa. They're not ~real~ diners I guess, because they aren't open 24 hours etc etc etc, but they've got the art form down anyway.
posted by rue72 at 11:23 AM on October 14, 2014


My usual order, menu-unseen, which applies at any restaurant that serves breakfast all or for a good portion of the day:
I know what I want, ma'am; I'm just not sure how it fits on your menu. Bacon, crisp. Two eggs, over-medium -- solid white; liquid yolk. White toast -- you butter it out back, right? Good. -- extra butter, and grits with shredded cheddar on top, but not mixed in."
(In my defense, I then proceed to tip @ ~50%.)
posted by The Confessor at 11:25 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


OH MY GOD I COMPLETELY FORGOT ABOUT THE PINECREST DINER IN THE UNION SQUARE/TENDERLION AREA>

I ate there every. morning. for. a .week. It's an old school diner run by new people so it has an updated but still back to basics menu and it's open 24 hours and has an open grill and is basically perfect except for the fact that it's kind of small.

It's also right next door to kitsch monstrosity Lori's with sad pancakes and OJ that tastes like hairspray and a fucking CAR in the dining room.

Diners do not have vintage cars in them I can't believe I have to say this.
posted by The Whelk at 11:30 AM on October 14, 2014 [5 favorites]




The Pinecrest Diner is a popular all-night diner-style restaurant in San Francisco, California, notorious for a murder over an order of eggs.


it doesn't get more True American Diner then that.
posted by The Whelk at 11:32 AM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


also nearby is a time-machine Jewish deli with a wrap around lunch counter and bagels and art deco metal lettering on the walls. It's a perfect variant on the "Jewish deli" diner style while also being basically unchanged from 1941.
posted by The Whelk at 11:36 AM on October 14, 2014


Diner moved in 2003

Everything after 2003 is inauthentic though just by nature right? Did the Bethesda one close? Man. Rough.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:48 AM on October 14, 2014


I could sure use a warm up tho. ☕.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:50 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


WHELK that is amazing and you are the best. I mean I love living in the land of taquerias, but every once in a while I just need a good solid hit of diner food. (It's even a stone's throw from great South Asian food, just like my favorites in Jersey!! Now I'm entertaining dark thoughts about a Louis CK-style bang-bang...)
posted by en forme de poire at 11:52 AM on October 14, 2014


What about The Tasty -- a.k.a. The tasty Sandwich Shop -- in Harvard Square?

There was a scene in "Good Will Hunting" filmed there. Their t-shirts said "So Good They Built Harvard Around Us," building on the tongue-in-cheek claim that the place opened up a year before Harvard College was founded.

It wasn't a diner car-style diner per se, but it did have the beautiful steel & formica interior and the signs with the slide-in letters, as shown in the image on the linked Wikipedia page. Also, it had Charlie the cook, after whose bread-bag-management example I now cuff down all half-empty bags, and whose ringing voice made "a glass of city beer!" sound rather delightful indeed.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:54 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Came to check that the Whately was represented, glad to see it is. Shout out also to the Miss Lyndonville. (Is it just New England where every town had a "Miss ____" diner at one time? I must have eaten in at least a dozen.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:59 AM on October 14, 2014


When I was in college, I loved going to the Gold Coin in Chicago (W. Howard?), usually about 1 or 2 in the morning. Always called "hon", always given quick refills, always saw the cops coming through, the late nighters, club kids and service workers. 24-hour place, if I remember.
Apparently, it's a kabab joint now . . .
posted by pt68 at 12:02 PM on October 14, 2014


Oh man, according to the Yelp reviews they have yuppified the Whately? It's expensive now? My memory of it was always cheap as hell, good diner food, terrible hostile service (yes it was the middle of the night), and if you really wanted to piss off the waitress you'd order a milkshake.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:06 PM on October 14, 2014


Oh and the Miss Worcester! If you're in Worcester, go.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:20 PM on October 14, 2014


And Moody's on Rte 1 in Maine.
IIRC the Miss Wiscasset is ok, and - at least years ago - the Miss Florence in Northampton was very poor, but from Yelp reviews it seems to have improved.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:27 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


In the midwest there are more truckstops than diners. Which are fine but less visually appealing to say the least. At least thats how it was in WI when I lived there. Or Embers type chains which are pretty solid despite being "inauthentic."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:33 PM on October 14, 2014


*spills coffee on self while airquoting*
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:33 PM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]


Thanks, LobsterMitten! I'll be up in Worcester in a few weeks, and will be sure to go.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:49 PM on October 14, 2014




Chrysostom, excellent! Fair warning, it's in an uninviting location; you'll park on the street nearby and it's basically in the crook of a graffiti'd underpass. But enjoy the decor and eat some French toast.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:17 PM on October 14, 2014


Did the Bethesda one close?

Still open last week as per Yelp.

What about The Tasty -- a.k.a. The tasty Sandwich Shop -- in Harvard Square?

What about it? Charlie's Kitchen and Nick's Beef and Beer House crushed it like a grape, that's what happened. Nick's is gone, now, too, but a Charlie's double cheeseburger is still one of the great joys of the Square.

In the midwest there are more truckstops than diners. Which are fine but less visually appealing to say the least. At least thats how it was in WI when I lived there.

The upper-midwest-except-Chicago is pretty weak on traditional Greek-run diners, but if you ever come up to Madison and want to check out a classic diner run by a Thai dude from the Dells, you should give Mickie's Dairy Bar a shot.
posted by escabeche at 1:24 PM on October 14, 2014


IIRC the Miss Wiscasset is ok, and - at least years ago - the Miss Florence in Northampton was very poor, but from Yelp reviews it seems to have improved.

Ah yes, Miss Flos! In the late 20th century, my wife-then-fiancé and I lived a 5 minute walk from Miss Flos. Many a night and morning it was our go-to establishment for sustenance and hot coffee.

The diner was (and is) a beauty and probably coasted on that for many years, because you're right it wasn't great food and had kinda strange hours, but it was darn cheap and if you squinted a bit on certain days you felt transported back to the 1950s. Especially if you ordered milkshakes, which were killer.

There was one unique item on the menu that was offered. It was basically a (large) fried mashed potato ball which was served in a small dish of melted butter. It's been 15 years or so since I ate one but my arteries still cry "Uncle" when I think of it.

< homer > Fried mashed potato balls . . . droool < /homer >
posted by jeremias at 1:32 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh and just checked, Bob and Edith's in Arlington VA is still around! It's funny to think how many diners are iconic markers of different life stages.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:35 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


The only two "diners" I go to here in Portland, OR are The Roxy, which is located downtown right next to Scandals, a gay bar, and is right off of West Burnside (I forget the exact street it's on); and Hot Cake House, which is on SE Powell and I think 9th, right across/before the Ross Island Bridge. When I first moved here one of the first friends I made lived up on 23rd & Burnside. We'd stay up all night drinking and smoking weed, recording music in his little apartment studio, then walk down to the Roxy at 3 AM for some breakfast and to figure out what to record next. It took us 3 months to record one song and we ended up with 34 tracks on it. I blame this routine on that.

Hot Cake House is a little out of the way for most any of my friends to go to late at night since we don't tend to party in that neighborhood very often anymore, but I live right across the Ross Island Bridge in SW and can walk there pretty easily. My two roommates and I were watching a show about steaks at 1 AM and decided to walk across the bridge to get some. I got a good tri-tip, eggs over medium, and a giant serving of hash browns.

I'm not really too sure of other diners in the Portland area, other than maybe Pattie's in St. John's, although I haven't personally been there. I wouldn't doubt if there were some amazing ones a little more east of where people my age typically hang out, such as maybe in the Mt. Tabor area.

I've been visiting Eugene a little bit and the diner I go to there for breakfast is Brails. I don't know if they are open 24 hrs but I love their breakfasts.
posted by gucci mane at 1:48 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Anyone here remember Dolly's Late Night in Davis Square?
posted by whuppy at 2:34 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'd love to visit a good old-fashioned American diner one day. They always look extremely appealing to me on your movie-shows and televisual-programmes. The chicken-fried whatever and endless refills and the slice of pie from the case. Plus beer too apparently. Susan Sarandon working the counter. Man, totally my kind of place.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:45 PM on October 14, 2014


We did not free ourselves from England's cruel yoke to have static pie.

Great line.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:46 PM on October 14, 2014


turbid dahlia: "Plus beer too apparently."

Check your local liquor laws first. Highly unlikely in - for example - Pennsylvania.
posted by Chrysostom at 3:29 PM on October 14, 2014


Actually it might be more common in PA due to the fact that only places that serve food can sell beer in quantities less than a 24 pack. There's a lot of places that are ostensibly restaurants but really are just a six pack shop.
posted by Ferreous at 4:16 PM on October 14, 2014


The side effect of this is that you can actually drink bottled beer in grocery stores with separate food sections.

Drunk at the giant eagle, but only the fancy ones.
posted by Ferreous at 4:18 PM on October 14, 2014


I'd love to visit a good old-fashioned American diner one day. They always look extremely appealing to me on your movie-shows and televisual-programmes.

This is totally part of the diner experience. You think "Yay, we're going to a diner!" as you walk up to the ornate glass doors, you walk in and breathe in deep that special diner scent, and are feeling happy and good about your decision until you look at the menu and remember the only reliably decent food at a diner is breakfast food. Then the watery coffee arrives followed by the bland pancakes. And then you think "Why do we always get excited about diners?"
posted by bleep at 4:43 PM on October 14, 2014


Ber: When I think of diners I think of two of my faves back when we lived in the Twin Cities: the legendary Mickey's Diner and the superb Cecil's Deli.

Hey don't neglect the other Mickey's Diner further down down West 7th in Highland Park.

I used to get off work at 1:30 am and would hit Mickey's about once a week. Week nights it was usually just me and the owner, an elderly Egyptian expat who goes by "Willy" and speaks heavily accented English through a smoker's cough.

The man buried me in food. My usual order was an omelette with a *half* side of hash browns. Willy would make a three egg omlette in a milk shake mixer whipping so much air into the eggs that a 2" thick omlette would cover an entire dinner plate. The half order of hash browns was easily a full potato, thick-shredded and left to steam on the griddle. Willy would come out from behind the counter balancing the two plates on one arm, a hoddle of coffee hooked on a finger, and a third plate with full stack of pancakes. "Here -- these pancakes, I make them for you. Free, EAT EAT!"

Sometimes he'd also give me cookies or a milkshake in a full tin with the understanding that I'd return the tin eventually. It's surprising I never slipped into a food coma and drove off the road.
posted by nathan_teske at 4:49 PM on October 14, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh there's also Al's Breakfast. Fourteen stools and a line half a block long. It could be -20F and there'd still be a line.
posted by nathan_teske at 4:50 PM on October 14, 2014


I must give a shout out to Mary Ann’s Pig Stand here in San Antonio. It's not an aluminum sided, chrome gilded monument to Americana... but the food is a good, the coffee cheap, and the milk shakes are delicious.

The good men and women that work there are in it for the long haul. It's easy to see that they care. It's a nice place to park and nurse some coffee as I ponder my next stage in life...
posted by PROD_TPSL at 5:00 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I am here to rep the Double T. All are good, but their Catonsville location was 10 minutes from University of Maryland Baltimore County, shorter if you raced down 40 in the middle of the night. My boyfriend and I never met a problem we couldn't solve over a plate of fries and a vanilla shake, and we still make an annual anniversary trip for chicken salad melts.

A good diner is a special kind of magic.
posted by Pardon Our Dust at 5:08 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ferreous: "Actually it might be more common in PA due to the fact that only places that serve food can sell beer in quantities less than a 24 pack. There's a lot of places that are ostensibly restaurants but really are just a six pack shop."

True, but they tend to the pizza shop type of place. I don't think I've ever been in a PA diner with a liquor license.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:18 PM on October 14, 2014


Oh and if you are in Houston and looking for a diner, people tell me Dot is the place to go. Open 24 hours, reviews gripe about the service, and owned by a Greek family so there's a good start.
posted by librarylis at 5:26 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've been to Dot and it definitely had more of a 70s rather than 50s vibe with lots of brown and orange Formica. That said, the wait staff did have giant hair(*) in the Southern style and called everybody "hon."

(*) The bigger the hair, the closer to God... As the saying goes.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:57 PM on October 14, 2014


True, but they tend to the pizza shop type of place. I don't think I've ever been in a PA diner with a liquor license.

They exist! Shoutout to Minella's in Wayne, home of cookies bigger than my head, busloads of prom-bedecked kids, coffee-craved college seniors, and lovingly made spanokopita. I never had a drink there, but I always liked knowing there was a place I could go at 3 a.m. and order pancakes and a Manhattan, if the occasion should ever arise. The Limerick diner also has a liquor license and also has 24/7 omelettes.

(it's definitely got a menu extended past the diner standards, but I think it counts)
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:59 PM on October 14, 2014


Thanks for not including Waffle House in the "faux" category. They really are the lifeblood of many, many little towns in a wide swath of the south.

I also note that Greek "Family" places definitely have a foothold in the Atlanta 'burbs. There are at least two — one on the west side, one on the east side — that are exactly the kind of Greek-owned diner you'd find in Virginia and points north.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:02 PM on October 14, 2014


I guess I am old enough to have gone to diners and luncheonettes when they were still just diners and luncheonettes. I grew up on Long Island and had family in NJ so there wasn't a weekend I did not go to one. As a wee one in the late 60s and early 70s, I so loved the concept of anything any time that whenever I was there before noon I had a burger and anytime I was there after noon I had breakfast. Boy was I sticking it to the man.

As I got older and got my license, my friends and I would go to the dinner after the bar on Friday nights. Drinking age was 18 back then kiddies so there were so many high school kids at the diner after 1:00am, they could have held homeroom. Whenever I visualize a diner, it is my hometown one or one from Northern Blvd. Sometimes when I watch the movie diner, I cry thinking about my home friends hanging out.
posted by 724A at 6:22 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


I must give a shout out to Mary Ann’s Pig Stand here in San Antonio.

Adding that to a long list of places to eat in SA. Their website hit counter says they've had 31,957 visitors! People talk about the food scene in Austin, but San Antonio has lots of old places that have stood the test of time.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:26 PM on October 14, 2014


Okay, that pigstand website is such a lovely little anachronism a-la 1998. No frames -- just pure font tag hand coding. So glad to see little independent sites like that sill standing & not all glitzed over by wordpress or some CMS.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:45 PM on October 14, 2014


As far as San Francisco goes, I'm partial to Grubstake. Not open 24 hours, almost nothing in this "city" is, but they're open til 4 AM, and Santos makes some darn good soup. Not really that much like an east coast diner, though it is built out of a trolley car.

There is a decent chance I will be there at 3:45 AM this coming morning.
posted by hototogisu at 7:26 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


Nice article! "No-nonsense egalitarianism" is so true - diner customers span a huge range of age and income, probably the middle 90% of Americans, without the depressing sense of race-to-the-bottom you get in fast-food franchises. And some of the best American dishes are classic diner chow: fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, meat loaf, baked beans, etc. When well done, these blue-collar favorites can hold their own with any cuisine's comfort foods. And OMG the pie!

The West Coast doesn't have the same tradition of small independent diners that you see back East, but there are a few good diner chains here in northern California: the Black Bear Diners served up some goofy lumberjack charm (one location had chainsaw-carved counter stools) along with their hash browns and pie, and Shari's Cafe and Pies became a road trip favorite, with us planning our route around their locations pies.
posted by Quietgal at 8:56 PM on October 14, 2014


I grew up in Plymouth, MI, a town on the western frontier of Detroit's fatal sprawl. It was, like most of the suburbs stuffed against Washtenaw County, the beneficiary of Michigan's home-rule laws, which sucked money, jobs, and dignity from the metropolis into the strip mall du jour.

We lived near the county line on a 3 acre lot whose surrounding strawberry fields were razed for mansions styled in Detroit's finest assembly-line fashion. James lived in one of these subdivisions, a nothing place surrounded by more nothing, and our friend Pat resided in the implausibly less exciting Canton (Plymouth at least has a downtown; Canton is a box store with a mayor).

In high school, the game was getting out to do something, anything to avoid turning the Playstation into a perpetual motion machine. My parents were the most strict of the group, so we normally gathered at James' to play Starcraft until our heads hurt.

Starting around junior year, Zack's of Plymouth was the epicenter of our Algonquin Round Table. We would order a plate of aptly-named Awesome Fries, covered with 2 types of cheese and bacon, and relive the epic sagas of street hockey, late-night poker, or vent our dissatisfaction of why girls aren't interested in guys who spend their free time housing omelets with as many types of pork as calories.

James' younger brother, Marty, would occasionally tag along with our hockey and video game adventures, and eventually the nitecap at the diner. Sometimes it was a pain having a freshman with our super-rad group of seniors, but he was funny and probably smarter than all of us. Marty knew his limits and pushed them, but it never felt unwelcome.

"Hey Zach: you're a dumbass."

Damn! Kid's got a point. Better threaten him!

The sitcom Malcolm in the Middle mirrored his life; he had 3 brothers who meant well but added entropy, and he succeeded despite the chaos. On top of that, their parents divorced sometime when we were in high school. Still, Marty would eventually graduate high school with high honors, earn a master's degree, and marry a woman relatively soon after college. Nobody talked much about the divorce, but it was obviously a huge deal. They moved a couple times but the brothers were always a short drive away and ready for an evening of Playstation and an Awesome Fries run.

Such was our existence as high school turned to college. Our group expanded, we prophesied the doom of rickety relationships, and I recounted the daily weirdness of employment at Greenfield Village, all over a plates of cheese fries, saganaki, and desserts served in pint-sized measuring cups. The restaurant itself, whose unfrozen sausage links and scorched coffee would be an insult anywhere else, was a minor character in our coming of age. Pat, James, and a 24-hour diner were the constants of those years.

Eventually we diverged to paths of social anxiety, partying exuberance, and my existence somewhere in the middle. Our trips to the diner became less frequent because of boring adult things like jobs, and because I moved two hours away. I invented a new life for myself that involved fewer hours in front of the TV, less emotional investment in sports, and minimal interest in reliving the character I played in those years.

I have seen neither of them since I moved to Pittsburgh a little less than 2 years ago. Our once-communal Livejournal existence is a ghost town and I torched my Facebook, so I have no easy means of keeping in touch, and I'm telephone-averse. It's a little monastic, but I have a small community here that obliges in moving me out of my head as the need strikes.

A few months ago, my caller ID read "JAMES."

He must have big news; I bet he's getting married!

He called to update me about Marty. He confirmed what I gleaned from a few years of Facebook updates: he earned his master's degree, married a great woman, moved to Minnesota for an important job, and was the life of the party. Marty made it, just like I knew he would.

James also told me that, as Marty endured the divorce, he started drinking. He had continued drinking since the age of 12 and was an alcoholic. His wife recently convinced him to clean up, and life was great again. But, he relapsed. When he relapsed, he decided to fly away from his demons from atop a parking garage in Minnesota.

God damn.

That was not supposed to happen. Marty was happy. He was smart. He was strikingly mature. But he was alone. He drank to cope, and he hid it well.

"You know," James said, "I was so grateful to have you and Pat around during that time."

Dude, all we did was play hockey and call each other jackasses!

"Exactly! You guys were always there."

He was right; while we acted like feelings made you a pussy (a death sentence in an all-boys high school), we had a brotherhood. Our conversations revolved around dumb video games, the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and "oh God remember that time you almost knocked out Seymour's eye?", but the material wasn't important. We were there, and there often enough that we all knew, and still know, each as a three-dimensional person. I didn't have the insight or maturity to discuss the pressure I felt from my parents beyond "it sucks", but both of them knew how I felt, even though I was too scared or ineloquent to speak vulnerably.

After we caught up for an hour or two and talked about the paving stone the event left in our stomachs, I felt I had to cut through all that had gone unsaid, so I told James I loved him. He didn't reply in kind because I think he was sharing a hotel room with his shell-shocked family and probably had a hard enough time processing a death without worrying about how to respond to unforeseen emotion from a guy once nicknamed "No-Tact Zach", but I know he does. We proved that through years of, well, just hanging out.

I haven't been back to Zack's in a long time, and I'm not sure I want to return. I don't want to go back there if the menu is different, if the same two Greek guys aren't behind the register, if they removed the ad for Charlene Berry's Dulcimer Evente from the tables now that she too has died, and especially because they now close at 10PM.

I'm also self-aware enough to know that if either called and said "we're getting Awesome Fries in fifteen minutes, be there" I would pack up and pick up the conversation where we left it eight years ago.
posted by Turkey Glue at 9:44 PM on October 14, 2014 [11 favorites]


I disagree with a few points in the article; apologies, The Whelk. As the Omega Diner, mentioned upthread, demonstrates, a true American diner can be a bit larger. The diner is definitely in the vernacular tradition and working to middle class, too, not a classless or truly class-transcendant phenomenon, some attempts at class-cultural appropriation notwithstanding. This means that chains, such as Denny's, do fit into the diner landscape, albeit in a complicated way.

Mainly though, I think there are fine grains of distinction between a genus of related types of eating establishments that a solid field guide should note, to help in identification and help the reader avoid misidentification: between Midcoast diners (the Ideal form), Southern diners, New England diners, California mid-century futurist chrome-based eating establishments, truck stops, greasy spoons, waffle/pancake houses, the almost-extinct drive-in, and the new punk diners (a trend that I, personally, am quite excited about). Additionally, while many Midcoast diners may indeed be run by people of Greek extraction (I haven't noticed one way or the other), there's also the sort of generic American restaurant or lunch counter, which is slightly different from the classic, mid-century, Midcoast diner, which folks in this thread seem to be talking about, at least in part.

What are these distinctions? Well, in addition to regional and restauant category variations in menu, and details such as that a Midcoast diner stays open 24 hours (like a truck stop or a waffle house(*), unlike diners in other regions and definitely unlike greasy spoons or lunch counters), one of the main distinctions between different species of American diner is in the exact flavor of mid-century futurism guiding the decor and overall feel of the establishment. Chrome is a commonality. (I'd say that naugahyde is far more common than actual leather, however.) But California diners have this brighter, more optimistic and light or airy feel; New England diners only have touches of chrome, and are kind of faking the futurism; Southern diners likewise, but with attendant cultural differences between New England and the South in terms of how they express their groundedness in the past. Midcoast diners uniquely balance the old and the, well, not new but it was at the time: here, that mid-century futurism had more established older traditions that it was attempting to replace, while on the West coast there's a sense that it was just a totally new construction. Western diners felt unfettered in continuing to evolve; New England and Southern diners were never fully on board with this futurism project in the first place; Midcoast diners, on the other hand, have been walking an extremely fine line between commitment to futurism and maintenance of the new traditions established in their heyday. Chain diners, as noted, are in a similar vernacular tradition but more distantly related. They are really unconcerned with futurism at all, though they sometimes fake it better than some New England or Southern diners, who at least grapple with that component of their identity. Chains that perhaps started in the diner style have mostly updated with changing times so do not obviously resemble the classic diner form nowadays; while chains that do build such a resemblance are playing on nostalgia, not futurism, and this ends up showing in their decor choices and overall atmosphere.

(* The northeastern House of Pancakes, while closely related to the southern Waffle House, differs in its hours of operation.)
posted by eviemath at 5:20 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


Diners occupy a not small chunk of real estate in my memory:

Going to Chicago, when my uncle and his family still lived in the red brick house on Ashland, the Zephyr was a couple blocks away, with their absurd ice cream creations. We my sister, cousin, and I almost always ate ourselves sick.

Growing up in Kalamazoo, Theo & Stacy's, it's always just been there. I always liked the one out near Big Lots, the one downtown felt too busy, too cramped. I went there as a kid, growing up, as a teen, visiting for the weekend from my uncle's house, meeting my mom on vaguely neutral ground, and again most recently when my father died while I was visiting with my wife and her parents (who he was supposed to meet, but never did). During the month I was taking care of his things, cleaning out his house, I found myself there more than once.

In Ann Arbor, where I was supposed to be staying with friends, but somehow I got pawned off to friends of friends, and a roommate needed absolute quiet, so I spent the night in a Denny's with a guy I barely knew, the two of us maybe fifteen at the time. We were up front with the waitress, who let us hang out, even though our section closed shortly afterwards. She'd pop her head in at the end of the row of booths from time to time, checking in on us. At one point, maybe around four, she jumped out and started hurling the little tubs of non-dairy creamer at us, laughing her ass off.

The Liberty in Libertyville, now I'm living with my uncle and his family out in the burbs, and they've taken me in so I'll be able to finish high school. We go there as a family, I go there with friends. The menu is massive, with a good solid two pages of Greek dishes. I always, always take forever when I look through the menu. I have never ordered anything other than the French dip. It's not even that great a sandwich, but every time I'm there, it's exactly what I want.

The Golden Nugget, at six or seven am. My uncle is driving me down into the city. And he hates traffic, so we're on the road by six, and we eat breakfast in the city. I'm going to the hospital, again, as I did on and off throughout college, dealing with a ruptured disc, then later a MRSA infection that almost killed me. We didn't spend a lot of time together. He literally saved me wasting my life, but it was rare that we got along. Still, there he was, taking me out for breakfast, and we'd find something simple to talk about, avoiding any of the buttons that would make the rest of the day impossible.

The Omelet Shoppe. Russ'. The Sterling, in Sterling, Illinois, again, my uncle driving me to a college interview, helping a snotty brat who wouldn't know for years how grateful he should have been for those hours on the road, for all those meals in diners, diners that had been there since his father, my fathers's father, just as distant, just as difficult, had taken him to on long random drives around the state.

Fuck, I miss diners.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:57 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


There was a diner in Richardson, TX. The town itself had long been subsumed into the great amorphous mass that was the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. The diner had been there since the 70's and progress, chain stores, strip malls et al, had come over it like a wave. It was still there though, a time capsule of furnishings and carpet. The pictures on the wall of diner looked like the cliches that put up in every TGIFriday's and Applebee's, but on further inspection showed the history of the small town that became part of a big city.

You're speaking of Nikki's Diner, aren't you? Little place on the corner of Coit and Campbell. Nursed my first real hangover there. The food wasn't that great, the waitstaff were surly and the regulars weren't too friendly.

But it was the only place of its kind in that part of town, at the time. It's long gone.
posted by Thistledown at 8:48 AM on October 15, 2014




no, no. no

where is the waitress named Mabel with the beehive hairdo

Hazel or Marge would also be acceptable
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:06 PM on October 24, 2014


we do have a large boisterous Armenian man with a giant beard seems to know the name of all the elderly regulars and pats them on the back does that work?
posted by The Whelk at 1:42 PM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


(my favorite local bar however does have a sausy bartender with a red updo who tells dirty jokes.)
posted by The Whelk at 1:43 PM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


(The Clover Grill in New Orleans remains the most American place I have ever seen.)
posted by The Whelk at 8:36 PM on October 27, 2014


Went to Miss Worcester last weekend for breakfast. Had to sell my MIL on the idea - she is a Blanchard's stalwart - but it was quite good.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:21 PM on November 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


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