Back in the day, heading out on the open seemed to be an exercise in possibilities. By many accounts it was an entertaining yet humbling experience that inspired, energized and even relaxed. For many, a big part of that experience included roadside diners.
Maybe it was the abundance of comfort in the food, maybe it was because the home-cooked nature of it or maybe it was the sense of community we got when we stopped to eat at a one. Whatever the reasons, diners were our home on the road.
They were a roadside staple for decades.
According to the American Diner Museum, a true diner is a “prefabricated structure built at an assembly plant and transported in sections to a permanent location for installation.” It was built to prepare and serve food.”
There’s usually a counter and stools facing a food preparation area along the back wall.
But it didn’t start that way.
The earliest “diner” is credited to Walter Scott of Providence, Rhode Island. In 1872 he was working as a pressman and needed to supplement his income. He re-purposed a horse-pulled wagon into a cart that served sandwiches, coffee, pies, eggs, etc. to a variety of late-night workers and theater patrons. It didn’t take long before Scott was able to quit his pressman job to solely serve inexpensive meals to people after most other restaurants had closed for the day.
More and more carts like Scott’s began springing up in other communities, all of them willing to serve anyone who was out after dark and hungry.
As more wagons and carts appeared, designs for them became more eater-friendly than Walter Scott’s first wagon. Newer carts allowed customers to stand inside or to sit on stools out of the weather.
Hand-painted murals, paneled woodwork and etched glass windows became prevalent too.
Later, when communities were replacing their trolleys with electrified street cars, entrepreneurs purchased them and converted them to a more stationary diner than the lunch wagons and carts.
The buildings were longer, tables and bathrooms were added and counters were being moved to make room for larger food sections.
In the meantime, diners were gaining a reputation as “greasy spoons.” Serving inexpensive food in grungy buildings was common. Some diner owners were more intent on making a living selling cheap food than they were on maintaining their buildings. Diners had even developed a reputation for serving the “unsavory elements of society.”
Owners tried to improve that image: Some added “Miss” to the name of their diners, thinking that adding a feminine, home-cooked feeling to the restaurants would help. Others tried to soften their image further by adding flowers, shrubs and other landscaping to the exteriors.
To help clean up the image more, modern diners with chrome and stainless steel interiors became popular with owners and travelers alike.
Demand for the diner increased after World War II…
…we were a country on the move at the height of our automobile culture and diners fit in well.
By now it wasn’t unusual for the diner to sport Formica counters…
…and leatherette booths and wood-paneled walls.
The windows were larger than ever, and some still had stainless steel exteriors.
Eventually, America’s desire for cheap food grew into a desire for fast cheap food. The advent of the fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s in the 50s began the decline of diner culture. At first, the response to this was a design revamp. Tudor, Mediterranean and even neo-classical styles were being used by diner designers.
Artificial stonework, dark wood, lots of earth tones and the switch to fabric booths instead of the leatherette had all become common. The idea was to replace the stainless steel and bold colors of the prior era. Still, customers were leaving diners behind for the faster, cheaper food of McDonald’s and the like.
In the 1970s, people like John Baeder (@JohnBaeder on Instagram) were responsible for a revival of diner culture. John spent decades painting over 300 diners, reminding us of what the diner has meant to our culture. (Have a look at the review of his book, John Baeder – Road Well Taken here on Faded Highways). Thanks to him, other artists and diner historians like Richard Gutman, we’ve fallen in love with them all over again.
It fascinates me that diners began as lunch wagons because we eat at them regularly today. Here in Madison, they don’t allow food trucks, only food carts, and they’re very similar to those first lunch wagons. There are festivals of food carts, they fill the Capitol Square every day for breakfasts and lunches for downtown workers and every Saturday they line the square during the Dane County Farmer’s Market. It all makes me feel like the diner has come full circle.
Now, the question is: Breakfast or lunch?
Sources and Further Reading:
The American Diner Museum
America On a Plate – BBC Video via Daily Motion
Smithsonian Magazine – A Life Devoted to the American Diner by Sarah Saffian
The Diner | Check, Please! – WTTV, Chicago