FAST-US-7 U.S. Popular Culture References
Defining 'Diner' . . .
Compiled by Cecilia Marjakangas (With thanks to Peter Day and Randy Garbin)
A FAST-US-7 United States Popular Culture Reference File
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere

CM: What makes a place a diner?

Answer (Peter Day, University of Iowa): The diner's origins go back to 1972 when Walter Scott converted his horse-drawn wagon into a lunch wagon, dispensing with sandwiches and hot coffee during the late-night hours in Providence, RI. The concept was an immediate hit and soon spawned competitors and imitators across the industrialized northeast. Eventually, as the lunch wagon evolved, it grew larger and larger until it became more or less a fixed structure, though built in a factory.

CM: One more thing: how come diners were named after "crack trains?" I've also heard that some diners are built into railroad carriages. Is that common?

Answer: The myth of the diner as retired railroad car begun and persists because in the 1920s and 30s when the railroads were still the dominant mode of transportation , it was considered quite a treat to have a meal on the train. Diner builders capitalizing on this attraction and already building structures that were similar to trains, designed their diners to looke even more like trains and the operators would then take it further by naming their diners after crack trains. In other words, it was a promotional gimmick.

Defining Diner
Randy Garbin
Published in Roadside Magazine, Spring 1995

How do you define a "diner"?

Take this for what it's worth, but as far as Roadside is concerned, this is what a diner is: A diner is a prefabricated structure with counterservice hauled out to a distant site. A diner is also a free-standing structure built to conform to classic diner proportions (as set almost universally by the past and current diner builders) and operating with the singular intention of providing good meals at reasonable prices.

If your restaurant is a storefront, or built into a shopping mall, or into a strip plaza, it is not a diner. If it sits anywhere within the boundaries of an amusement park, it is not a diner. If it serves $8.95 cheeseburgers and requires reservations, it is not a diner.

These places are either restaurants or luncheonettes. Or if they're inside Disneyworld, they're frauds.

Got that? Good. Now let's move on and define a Great diner. This can best be illustrated by telling you about an exchange I had recently with John Mariani of Esquire Magazine. Mr. Mariani wrote an article called The Return of the Great American Diner. Sadly, the diners he focused on were neither diners (by our definition) nor did they seem all that great. To be fair, the focus of his piece centered on the food, and I don't doubt his critical abilities, but if one follows his reasoning, any restaurant can now install a counter with a few stools, list a blue plate special and call themselves a diner.

Sorry, Pal, but the price of admission is a little higher than that, and frankly, this bastardization and cashing in on the concept has got to stop. There are too many people working too hard to legitimize and rehabilitate the concept of the real item, and these high-financed, corporate attempts to ride this wave is an insult to all they are working towards. When publications such as Esquire pass these fine folks over to publicize what is nothing but someone's latest addition to their investment portfolio, they not only do their readers a great disservice, but our whole culture as well. What we're looking for are things that are real, things that have substance, and finally, and most importantly that have texture. Mr. Mariani's examples have none of these, and from the reply I received from him, I doubt he knows what I'm talking about, though I am sure that our faithful readers do.

To put it simply, a great diner defines its success not by how much money they stuff into their bank accounts, but by how many of their customers they know by first name. To me, that pretty much sums it up, and as it happens, if you're really good at the latter, you'll do just fine with the former. It gets a lot easier to know their names if they become repeat customers, which of course won't happen if it isn't a great diner.

Get my drift? A diner, more than any other type of restaurant, is just as much a people business as it is a food business. Food is our sustenance. It is something we put into our bodies, that we need to live, so a sense of trust is an elemental part of the experience. A great diner fosters that trust by establishing a personal bond, either through the owner walking around shaking hands; or by the waitess remembering that I always take my coffee black; or by the grillman loaning his car to a stranded traveler (this has actually happened). It fosters that trust by serving meals with consistency, with a love of cooking, and with empathy for what it is like to be the customer. It fosters the trust by treating help in the same manner as it treats family.

Finally, a great diner sticks to the basic formula with only four ingredients: Good, honest meals, great service, clean environment, reasonable prices. As soon as one is neglected, the whole fabric starts to unravel, and the countdown to closing begins.

And one of the biggest distractions to an owner's attention to these ingredients is an overloaded focus on nostalgia. It is time to revisit this issue because after several long diner-filled roadtrips, it apparently bears a loud repeating ... To once again quote the owner of a great diner, Mr. Bob Malley of the Highland Park Diner, "You don't eat theme." As soon I hear about plans that include such nonsense as car hops, cruise nights, old cars mounted on the roof, a real 1950s juke box filled with Elvis, and pink this, pink that, and still more pink , I quickly lose my appetite. Very quickly. And so does everyone else after they've given the place a try.

To press my point, let's debunk a few myths about the 50s diner.

First of all, no diner EVER had car hops. Car hops were employed at drive-ins, which were fun to visit, I'll grant you, but they weren't generally known for very good food. Also, car hops met extinction because they were usually a drain on profits. The McDonald brothers figured this out, and the rest is history.

I'd also venture to say that juke boxes in the 1950s were filled with anything but rock and roll. Don't forget, in that decade, this music was still regarded as radical, even subversive, and the diner owners, ever-striving to attract more families, probably filled their jukes with Mathis or Sinatra. Nothing uncool about that now.

Pink was not the typical color of most diners, but people often fail to make the distinction between a Fodero and a Chevrolet. You never found black and white checkerboard floors, either. I challenge any of you to find an authentic 50s diner with such a floor, or one with pink Formica. O'Mahony and Mountain View, two of the most prolific builders of the periods, usually worked in light blues, coral, gray, light green, and occasionally red and maroon. Generally, the palate was pastel in nature. Loud colors were not de rigeur for diners of that period, and for good reason.

Go easy with the neon. Though certainly used in the 1950s, its application was primarily functional -- neon letters are easier to distinguish across long distances. Notice how the glare of plastic signs doesn't even come close in readability. Beyond that, to accentuate every bit of trim in the place with strips of neon is needless and foolish. People just want a good meal in a clean and attractive setting, they don't want a light show.

They also don't want to see hokey over-drawn posters of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and/or Marlon Brando. In 1955, I seriously doubt that the more successful diners hung posters of Rudy Valentino or Lillian Gish. This is not only tacky, it covers up the natural beauty of an authentic diner.

Look, I'm just trying to make your job as diner owner easier. You're job is to serve good food. Let your diner create its OWN history. You've got enough to worry about, from unreliable help to broken down refrigeration, to have to start worrying about a burnt out neon strip in the corner recess, or a customer unhappy with the scratch on his 1956 Thunderbird left by the hurried car hop. You don't need those headaches!

You want theme? Go buy a Johnny Rockets franchise. Take your money and run. Make ZERO impact on our society and do NOTHING to enhance our culture, but just keep your money-grubbing hands off of the diner. You want to run a great diner? Just mix together the four ingredients in the real item (as outlined above), and watch yourself make a little history, as well as more than a little money.

Richard Gutman has written an excellent book on the history of diners (American Diner: Then and Now). His e-mail address is <>.

Our recipe for an American Renaissance:
Eat in diners! Ride Trains! Put a porch on your house! Shop on Main Street! Live in a walkable community!

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Last Updated 30 January 2010