An ode to classic American diners
Do you collect diners? I do. Their gleaming lines – reminiscent of old Airstream trailers – inspire dreams of the open road.
Their association with travel comes naturally as the first diners were mobile lunch wagons. Often they were old rail dining cars, parked by the side of the road, serving as inexpensive all-night eateries. Between the world wars, new pre-fab units proliferated. Materials were stylish but easy to clean: stainless steel, tile, porcelain enamel, glass blocks. And of course, glorious neon, guaranteed to snag the eye of sleepy or speeding drivers.
Classic American diners of the 1920s to 1940s featured Art Deco or Streamline Moderne elements drawn from transportation themes popular at the time. Their rounded lines and chrome accents were a direct nod to era automobiles, ships and trains. While diner decor varied over time, the old railcar layout remained: a service counter dividing the interior, floor-mounted stools for customers, booths if there was room.
Diners are a distinctly North American thing, reaching their heyday when gas was cheap and long road trips were a common way for families to spend the summer. Their popularity waned with the growth of fast food chains but original diners are cherished now by architecture and nostalgia buffs. On a trip to New Mexico, I had fun using a guide published by the city of Albuquerque to track down remnants of a few historic diners on Route 66.
Old diners themselves are increasingly on the move as they are bought and transferred right across the continent. One of my favorites, the 11th Street Diner in Miami, is a 1948 classic that, after forty years of hard work in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, retired to Miami’s Art Deco district. Since having a facelift, the diner has appeared in movies and many a music video. The menu has had a facelift, too, featuring items designed to get your body South Beach ready. Open 24 hours a day, it’s a valuable address to know.
The Lake Effect Diner in Buffalo, New York, is another charming post-war original that has been featured on the Food Network. The diner was restored by the Curtin family who have also renovated classic diner food with fresh ingredients sourced from local farms. I research diners before I hit the road, the rest of my itinerary falling into place around a list of independent eateries.
Sometimes a diner discovery is pure serendipity. Once, on a night bus north of San Francisco, I peered anxiously over the driver’s shoulder as we drove into a black wall of rain. He pulled off the highway into a tunnel of trees that slapped and scraped our windows for about a mile. There in the rain and fog, under dripping trees, glowed an old railcar diner. I squeezed past sleeping passengers and ran after the driver. Inside, the diner’s shabby counter was elbow-to-elbow with people all forking up the same thing: five-inch thick slabs of strawberry pie. An immense, sweating young man cut and served his specialty as fast as he could.
I’ve actually dreamed of that diner, the run through dark and rain, the crowded counter, the hardworking cook, the juicy pie. An adventure both culinary and nostalgic, diners are my stuff of dreams.
This post first appeared on TravelandEscape.ca. Photos here previously unpublished.