DINE AND DASH: Diner culture and road-tripping

By Gemma Peckham

It’s quite a challenge to find a story about a cross-country odyssey that doesn’t mention a diner—so much so that I have come to believe that it’s an impossible task. These all-American establishments have provided much to the American people for almost 150 years, and continue to do so—particularly on the open road.

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Put a piece of pie in front of me, and I’m instantly happy. Make that pie à la mode, pair it with a vinyl booth, some cheesy American tunes, and a crapload of Formica and neon, and you’re guaranteed to get me out of even the deepest funk.

If you don’t stop at diners on your road trips, I need to have a serious talk with you. I’m not asking you to smash a sloppy joe or pulverize the pie cabinet like I do—just do yourself a favor: stop in for at least a coffee, and sit at the long counter soaking up the incredible atmosphere of an old-school eatery. Because it’s not just about the food (I never thought I’d hear myself say that); it’s about the culture. There’s not much that’s as connected with road-tripping as a proper American diner, so there’s no sense in missing out on what is arguably a vital part of the adventure.

Diners are a type of crossroads, where strangers come together with nothing in common other than a mean hankering for comfort food and questionable coffee. They are enigmatic, becoming something different to each kind of patron.

They’re late-night dens for loners and vagrants, and as such, they have stoked the creativity of many Americans—think the iconic Hopper painting Nighthawks; the cult Tom Waits album Nighthawks at the Diner; and Kerouac’s knife-marked counters in the opening of Visions of Cody.

On the other hand, they’re cheery meeting places for after-prom gatherings, family birthdays, peewee team dinners and casual business meetings. Happy Days, Grease and Beverley Hills 90210 (OMG Luke Perry) all featured diners as central to the lives of their shiny teenage characters—a place to grab a milkshake and flirt with a crush before heading to the movies.

For road-trippers, diners have long been a beacon of hope on the horizon; how many times have you driven just a little too long to make it to your destination before nightfall, lamenting the need to set up your site and cook before winding down for the evening, and then spotted a glowing rescue restaurant emerging out of the darkness?

From early-morning coffee runs before a long drive, to lunchtime rest stops and lonely pie binges (just me? Cool cool cool), there’s a comfort and familiarity in a diner that is difficult to find anywhere else, particularly when you’re traveling. Stop at any diner on your route, and you will likely find local newspaper stories framed on the walls; a friendly server merrily chatting with regulars and out-of-towners; and a 12-page menu stuffed with favorites like club sandwiches and ice-cream sundaes.

So, how did the diner manage to attract such a dichotomous audience, retaining its appeal to brooding loners and wholesome adolescents, and everyone in between? It seems that food is a great equalizer, and most Americans will acknowledge the value of an inexpensive, hot, familiar meal in a no-frills place that reminds them of home. And even at the strangest hours, there’s an awakeness and a buzz about a diner that makes you feel like you’re less alone in the world—something for which full-time road-trippers are endlessly grateful.

The history of diners in America

The first diner was a lunch cart that Walter Scott established in 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island, to feed late-night workers, theatergoers and other night owls when all the other restaurants were closed. Basically, Scott is the reason that we can now find a burger at 3 a.m. after a few adult beverages, and for that we are eternally grateful.

Throughout the decades, diners have undergone a series of transformations. Early on, as a late-night haunt for working-class men and a variety of nocturnal characters—and often known as a “greasy spoon” due to its focus on cheap, home-cooked food and lack of focus on cart upkeep— the “night lunch cart” earned itself a slightly unsavory reputation.

As the decades passed, women won the right to vote, World War II ended, and the economy began to thrive. The diner became a place for those who had been going without luxuries for years, and could now eat hot, inexpensive food with friends and family in a bright, convivial atmosphere. The dining establishments morphed from dilapidated counters on wheels into cheerfully decorated stationary structures, and spread from New England into other parts of the country. It was around this time that the iconic stainless steel diner started to dominate the scene; the aim was to attract passing motorists (oh, hey!) who were taking drives and vacations in their new automobiles.

You might not know it, but a traditional diner is one that has been manufactured off-site and shipped to its final destination, which is why so many of the diners scattered across the country are long, narrow buildings— they had to fit on a truck or train bed in order to be transported. Essentially, diners are the RVs of the restaurant world, traveling across the country in search of their communities.

Manufacturers of these prefab buildings went into a diner frenzy in the 1950s to keep up with demand, and that decade’s space obsession also brought with it the aesthetic that’s still prevalent today. Surfaces are slick: tiles, glass, stainless steel, porcelain enamel and neon. Even today, there’s a futuristic feel amid the nostalgia, which is confusing and comforting all at once.

The popularity of diners hit a speed bump in the 1970s with the advent of fast-food restaurants, with affordability and a quick meal increasingly appealing to the modernizing population. Not long after, however, when moral and economic uncertainty threatened what many saw as the American way of life (and when folks realized that diner food is real and fast food is… what is fast food?), a yearning for the ideals of times past revived the traditional diner.

Since then, the diner has solidified its place in an America that appreciates the eatery’s roots as a meeting place for people from all walks of life to enjoy down-home food and the company of friends or strangers. Today, some of the original diners have been shipped across country and set up camp elsewhere, some have been transformed from space-age capsules into woodsy cabins, and some sit exactly where they did a century ago.

As RVers and road-trippers, we inherently know that there’s a lot more to life than the fast pace and daily grind that are hallmarks of modern life. The impersonal, hectic universe is swept aside by a visit to a diner; stepping through the doors is like traveling back to a time when people would have a leisurely meal with each other—a time when community and connection were valued.

Across the United States, there are some iconic diners that hold far too many stories for us to share here, but here are a few of the stand-outs— mostly in the eastern states, where the diner originated.

Casey’s of Natick, Massachusetts

If you want to go way back to lunch-cart times, Casey’s in Natick is a no-brainer. Established in 1890, this tiny slice of diner history is famous for its steamed burgers and hot dogs. It began as a lunch cart on wheels, so if you’re curious about what that looked like, head to Casey’s—the diner boasts a long counter with stools for just 10 people, a dark-wood interior and not much else. Expect your food on a paper plate, and expect it to be good.

Mickey’s Diner, St Paul, Minnesota

If you’re looking for the celebrity of diners, Mickey’s is it—this sweet little diner, styled on the dining cars of the 1930s, has appeared in numerous TV shows and magazines, as well as the classic underdog-to-champion movie The Mighty Ducks (yes, Emilio Estevez has parked his butt on one of the stools). Fame aside, Mickey’s has been operating 24/7 for 70 years, serving classics like eggs, pancakes and hash browns (according to one long-time server, the menu is “pretty much the same” as it was when the diner opened). Its porcelain-enamel steel panels, Art Deco lettering and train windows helped the diner gain a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, so it’s not going anywhere.

Palace Diner, Biddeford, Maine

Happily for half of our readers, a sign out the front of Palace Diner reads “Ladies Invited,” so you’re good to go, female friends! Of course, the sign is a hangover from 1927, when the diner was established. These days, you’re likely to find a mix of patrons that skew a little hipster in what is known as the oldest diner in Maine; Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell, the sixth owners of this little outpost (and self-confessed ’90s rap fans), have brought culinary skills and an artful refurbishment to the Palace, creating a modern eatery with a vigorous nod to the past.

Frank’s Diner, Kenosha, Wisconsin

Frank’s is another historic diner that started as a lunch cart, but it’s since been built out and boasts a brick facade housing the original cart, and a new kitchen and dining room. Routinely voted one of the best diners in the region, Frank’s is also a no-nonsense establishment. From the website: “Be nice or leave. Don’t shout. Everything is good today. Order what you want, eat what you get. It’s nice to be nice to the nice. Time to go? Don’t be a stranger.”

Hi-Lo Diner, Minneapolis, Minnesota

The stainless steel–sided Hi-Lo Diner in Minneapolis has only occupied its current spot for two years; it was transported from Gibsonia, Pennsylvania in 2016, after operating there since it opened in 1958 as the Venus Diner. The 1957 Fodero-manufactured Hi-Lo is a little larger than some of the earlier diners; it was built to be transported in two pieces, so it has plenty of space inside. The interior’s teal vinyl upholstery and pink neon lighting mesh with the vintage fit-out to take you straight back to the ’50s, and the menu is packed with old-school and modern fare (you can order meatloaf and mashed potatoes, or lavender crème-brulee French toast).

This story first appeared in ROVA Adventure Eight, August/September 2018

Gemma PeckhamComment