Diner: America's Iconic American Restaurants with counters

Mickey's diner, st. Paul, MN
Mickey's diner, st. Paul, MN | Source

Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s the diner was a very common type of restaurant in many parts of the United States. To a large extent fast food has replaced the diner in our times but the lasting iconic appeal of the diner is reflected in a revival of diners since the 1970s. Most often, as I recall, they were conversions of such things as railroad cars, streetcars and other ready-made constructions. The standard diner is prefabricated much like today’s mobile homes. Wikipedia describes them as especially common to the Northeastern United States. Diners are also noted for American style food, casual atmosphere, a counter, and late operating hours. Stainless steel is an architectural feature of “Classic American Diners” according to Wikipedia. It is unique to diners. Recently I have been in cafes and restaurants that are trying to capture the ambience of the diner, often with a 1950‘s nostalgia theme. In Minneapolis, as well as other cities, there are diners that were there when I was a small boy.

n Pawtucket, Rhode Island was built in 1940.
n Pawtucket, Rhode Island was built in 1940. | Source
attribute John Handy
attribute John Handy | Source
Source

Diners Defined

According to the website for The American Diner Museum a true “diner” is prefabricated at an assembly site and transported to a permanent site and used to serve prepared food. Dictionary.com defines a diner as a railroad dining car or a restaurant designed to look like one. Manufacturers borrowed the style of the railroad cars. They usually have a counter, stools and food preparation space along the back wall. Especially those who could not afford a new building sometimes converted actual railroad cars and trolleys to diners. Some early diners were railroad dining cars retired from use as part of a train and set up nearby to the station.

The Revival

A new interest in the American diner began with a revival in the 1970‘s. Three diner builders began to make new diners in the style of the old ones. Additionally, new companies added to the retro trend. Denny’s chain and others started to take on the look of the diner. The trend spread to Europe and created business for American manufacturers. Many restaurants, and fast food places have 1950’s themes to satisfy the nostalgia trend. Many vintage diners have been kept from demolition and put on new sites in the United States and Europe.

Diner History

Providence, Rhode Island is accredited for the first known instance of a diner in 1872 with a horse-drawn wagon, which was equipped to serve hot food to the Providence Journal. An employee by the name of Walter Scott started out making sandwiches and coffee at home and selling them to other employees. It was popular enough that he started the lunch wagon. Commercial production of lunch wagons started in 1887, in Worcester, Massachusetts by Thomas Buckley who became known for his “White House Cafe” Wagons. A Charles Palmer got the first patent in 1891 for the diner and was active in building “fancy night cafes” and “night lunch wagons” until 1901.

The Worcester Lunch Car Company in 1906 shipped ‘diners’ all over the Eastern Seaboard. Manufactured lunch wagons with seating started in the later part of the 19th Century and were in the Northeast portion of the U.S. These served busy downtowns without having to buy expensive real estate.

Probably the diner took form when the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in Elizabeth N.J. built what some consider the first “diner.” In all the company made 2,000 diners starting in 1917 until 1952. According to Wikipedia about twenty of O’Mahony diners are still in the

U.S. and elsewhere.

Prefabricated buildings started to replace wagons as the need for more seating arose. Both the wagon and the prefab building were often made by the same manufacturers and allowed for quick set up of a food service.

Inexpensive food was one appeal the of diners. The policy of keeping the lunch wagons open longer than conventional restaurant hours also made them popular. The early lunch wagons were successful enough to inspire some persons manufacture and sell wagons. Along the way the wagons improved with features that allowed customers to stand inside out of the weather and in some there were stools to sit on at the counters. In New England in the late 19th Century in New England night lunch wagons started to be set up. Some were elaborate with such things as stained and etched glass windows, painted murals and fancy woodwork.

Can you be too popular?

Lunch wagon vendors in some cities became so plentiful that many cities wanted to restrict them. As ordinances were passed to restrict the trade, especially the hours of operation, some owners put their wagons on semi-permanent locations in order to circumvent the law. By a fortunate coincidence horse drawn streetcars were being replaced with electric ones. Many vendors bought the streetcars and converted them. This was far cheaper than buying a new dining car. Whatever the case most owners were on tight budgets and often neglected maintenance, resulting in the diners getting the reputation of being “greasy spoons” and a hangout for undesirables.

To increase business and to attract the newly enfranchised women who had gotten the right to vote in the 1920’s owners decided to clean up their image. The added some landscaping, such as flowers and shrubs, offered booth service and repainted the diners. Some added the word “miss” to their names to help feminize and soften their image.

The manufacturers added innovations like indoor bathrooms, tables, longer length and designed counters to accommodate greater food selections. Most cars were similar even though from different manufactures, as they were all evolved versions of the early lunch wagons. Some companies offered credit and financing as well as fully equipped dining cars.

The manufacturers made an effort to improve the image of the diners with the railroad car look and the term “diner.” In the 1930’s the biggest change in style was the streamline modern style of the 1930’s. They fabricated modern materials into streamline forms to suggest speed and mobility to identify with the new, futuristic modes of the machine age.

Depression

By and large diners stayed in business during the depression because they offered inexpensive places to eat. As streetcars and interurban were replaced in the 1930’s and 1940’s with internal combustion buses, there was a new supply of trolley’s to convert to diners.

Demand for diners dramatically increased after the World War II. The service men were returning and the economy was shifting to a consumer-based production. Americans had money and were eager to spend it. New materials were available for diners, such as Formica, Naugahyde and terrazzo floors. With the population shifting to the suburbs the look of diners changed. New stylistic features included stainless steel exteriors and large windows to attract passing cars. On the inside were air conditioning, ventilation, and lighting. In the mid to late 1950’s design started to reflect the interest in space and rockets.

Fast Food

Fast food establishment started to take away some of the diner market with affordable food for people on the go. The diner manufactures responded by marketing diner-restaurants wit Neoclassical, Tudor and Mediterranean styles. The added artificial stonework, dark stained wood, earthtone colors were used to replaced stainless steel, neon and bold colors.

Summary

The diner is an iconic American restaurant, although they also enjoy popularity in some other countries. They are modeled after the dining cars on trains and the true diner is a prefabricated structure that is shipped and set up on site. Their predecessors were horse drawn wagons, which served food and the evolved to the prefab structure. At times railroad cars, streetcars and buses have been converted into diners. The fast food industry has been a threat to the diners but due to a revival in the 1970’s there is still a place for diners to continue as an American icon.

© 2011 Don A. Hoglund

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Comments 37 comments

Just Ask Susan profile image

Just Ask Susan 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

We too have many diners here in Canada that are quite popular. The Ossawippi here in Orillia was a Fine dining French Cuisine style. It was in business for many many years and was featured on the show Restaurant Makeovers. It is an actual train car and is absolutely gorgeous. I never had the pleasure of eating there but heard the food was awesome.

Enjoyed your hub very much!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I probably should have said more about the Canadian and European diners but it would probably fill another hub.The diners that I am personally familiar with are mostly old and serve rather unglamorous food. Mostly they are in industrial parts of town where blue collar people eat.

Mickey's diner in St. Paul--the picture on top of the hub is one I of that type, although I have never eaten there I have seen it when I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Thanks for commenting and I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.


Dexter Yarbrough profile image

Dexter Yarbrough 5 years ago from United States

Great nostalic hub! Being from Chicago, I have a great appreciation for your hub and the diner, of course. Many are still around in the more industrial neighborhoods.

Thanks for sharing! Voted way up!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I appreciate the comment and vote. I recall right after college I was in Chicago for a short time in a training program. I believe we ate at some diners.It always stuck in my mind that they served French fries with everything, even breakfast in Chicago.


kingis profile image

kingis 5 years ago from Springfield, IL

In my hometown, we have a worldly renown diner in Charlie Parkers. It is in a quonset hut in Springfield. It has been featured on Diner, Dives, and Drive-Ins on the Food Network. They are known for Springfield's delicacy the "horseshoe sandwich" and the pizza size tray of pancakes. I have not tried the big pancakes but the look good. I have a hub that shows the clip of Charlie Parkers on my Horseshoe hub here. Good hub!!


WaterBearer profile image

WaterBearer 5 years ago from Southwest Virginia

This was good reading. I recall with fondness the Tasty Diner in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Great place for great breakfasts at 3am after tending bar all night.


The Frog Prince profile image

The Frog Prince 5 years ago from Arlington, TX

You and I, my friend, grew up in the same era evidently. Wonderful walk down memory lane.

Up and awesome.

The Frog


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Kingis

Thanks for reading and commenting. In our small city here in Wisconsin we also have a quonset hut.I'm curious what the horseshoe sandwich consists of.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

WaterBearer

It has been a long time since I worked those kinds of hours but when you do get of work in the wee hours a Diner can be like an oasis. Thanks for reading and commenting.


The Frog Prince profile image

The Frog Prince 5 years ago from Arlington, TX

dahoulund - The last time I saw a quonset hut was in the wilderness of Alaska. YIKES!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Frog

I don't know where they have all gone but I still see a few quonset huts. When I grew up there was a big section of them in Northeast Minneapolis used as veterans housing just before the building boom of the 1950's. In the 1960's they were used as student housing for the married student at the University.

I think that mobile homes serve the same kind of functions now. Thanks for your comments.


TheManWithNoPants profile image

TheManWithNoPants 5 years ago from Tucson, Az.

dahoglund

I wish I could send you a picture of the chair I'm sitting in. My great uncle owned a diner when I was a kid. Mom and I used to go to the diner and eat dinner every Friday night. It was our treat. I loved that place. The meat loaf was the best, and it had those little table juke boxes where you flip the song list from side to side. Mom and I jammed out. Anyway, I've got a chair from the diner that I sit on instead of my leather office chair in my office here at home. I use it at the desk, and I can turn around and grab a guitar and play it from this chair. It's my pride and joy, and is always a connection to my childhood. Just about any picture of me you see in my hubs where I'm sitting at my desk, you'll see that good old chair.

Up, useful and awesome!

jim


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Like so many others you seem to have found memories of a diner.Comments like yours are bringing back some of my own. Thanks for commenting.


WillStarr profile image

WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

I still love the old diner. You can always count on comfort food!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

We have a couple of independent cafes in our town that are quite popular. I am not sure if they fit the technical definition or diner but the food fits the image.Thanks for your comment.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

In American movies of the '40s and '50s there is often mention of 'the blue plate special'. Care to elaborate on this. I believe it was part of the diner tradition. In Australia it would simply be the special of the day. At least I get the impression that is what the blue plate special was about. Was it ever presented on a blue plate? just wondering. Voted up.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

The blue plate special was often served on a blue plate. It was something like the daily special and more so now. It was largely an element of diners and cafes but not limited to them.It is less popular now but not totally gone. Maybe I'll research some more and write a hub on it.Thanks for your comment.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore

dahoglund, great hub and a really interesting history. The diner is so quintessentially American..like the Motel. I love this painting too, by Edward Hopper, which seems to highlight something about the diner. How it can sometimes be a lonely place:

http://www.edwardhopper.info/Nighthawks.html


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

You are right about the painting. Diners probably attracted the lonely people because it was the only place to go after hours.In my family growing up it was sort of a custom to go to a movie on Saturday night and stop to eat after.Thanks for your comment.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

We have some in Houston although for the most part they are replicated from the old designs with jute boxes, etc. The authentic ones are most probably found in small towns these days. This hub is a slice of Americana. Nice job! Voted up.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

To a large extent fast food has taken the place of diners, I think.There are a couple here. One you might know is Misty's Menu out on highway 13. We ate at one in Osseo, Wisconsin last year. I would have taken pictures if I knew I was going to writ on this subject.


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 5 years ago from the Ether

dahoglund - I love this hub! I'm really captivated by anything 1940s and 1950s and diners are no exception to the rule! I remember one particular diner in my hometown (actually a block down from my house) that is known as Bert's 50s Drive-in. It used to be really old school 50s style, but has been re-purchased and re-done. It is still 50s style, but it doesn't look as nostalgic...sort of a cheesy 50s style, if that makes any sense. Anyway, the ice cream there is fabulous! Great hub! Voted up and awesome.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Since the 1950's is the era I grew up in I can understand what you mean by "cheesy" '50s. I would say the icons of the period among others would be Bill Haley,Elvis,Marilyn Monroe, tail fins on cars,drive in movies and eating places.James Dean of coarse.

Thanks for commenting.


sweetie1 profile image

sweetie1 5 years ago from India

Hi Daholud, nice hub and we in India has a tiffin system where people just order tiffins, which has your lunch in it with indian food and a sweet to polish off the lunch. In Mumbai they serve to over a million people and it is on record that they haven't sent a wrong lunch till date for more than 50 years. Even Prince Charles came to India to study their system. In delhi they usually send you lunch enough to fill a normal man's tummy for Rs 35 ( about 65 cents). Though i did like pre fabricated idea of diner but out here we dont see anything pre fabricated. so may be trend is yet to catch up. BTW voted it up and since this hub is beautiful so clicked beautiful too.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for reading the hub and commenting on it, Sweetie.I think the diner and prefabricated buildings for it are part of American history and culture. I imagine India and other cultures have their own customs which evolved from circumstances.


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

I love this information. Especially about dinner history. Sorry, I am late to read this hub. But better late than never, right. Thanks for share this information. Rated up as always.

Prasetio:)


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Your comments are welcome anytime.Sometimes it is good to get people reading and/or commenting on the older hubs. Thank you for reading it and commenting.


Truckstop Sally profile image

Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

Enjoyed this step back in time. I noticed your Diners, Drive-In, and Dives section. I love that show, and it is fun to watch Guy's stories on YouTube. I think he has done much to "popularize" different types of resturants. The biggest craze in my town right now is taco trucks. They offer everything from gourmet burgers to cupcakes . . . Indian food and everything in-between.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for commenting. Now that you mention it, I remember where I used to work they had a truck come around the shops selling hamburgers and such. Generally it was called the "Roach Coach."


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

A few years ago I lived in Phoenixville, PA where they used a local diner in the movie The Blob. I don't know if it's still standing but it sure was there when I lived there. Great hub - lots of research and history. There's something so comforting about eating in a diner.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

The diner now seems to be part of the nostalgia for the 1950's. At least many have themes of that era.Since it is the decade I grew up in,I suppose it attracts me or I feel comfortable with it.

Thanks for your comment.


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 5 years ago from Texas, USA

I have seen a few diners in my part of Texas. Enjoyed reading your article, rated up.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for reading it. Glad you stopped by.


Stephanie Henkel profile image

Stephanie Henkel 2 years ago from USA

Eating at the Flemington Diner was a great part of my childhood and teen years. I loved going there with my date after a movie and fiddling with the table-top juke box while we had burgers or a cherry coke and sundae. Your hub brings back fond memories!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

thank you, Stephanie. I think many of us grew up when diers were popular prior to fast food places.


rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 2 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

I've seen one somewhere, but I can't remember what city it was in. Not that I am that well-traveled LOL, interesting.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 2 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thanks for reading about diners, Rebecca. In the Minnepolis-St. Paul, Minnesota area where I come from, there are still a few. The Mickey's picture above is one of them. There is a bit of a trend now to imitate them, sometimes in fast food places. 1950's pop culture and such.

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