Back in the day, heading out on the open road was an exercise in relishing the possibilities on the horizon. It was a humbling yet hopeful experience that inspired, entertained, energized, even relaxed us. For many of us, a big part of that experience included roadside diners. Maybe it was the food that held an abundance of comfort in every bite. Maybe it was because the food was so inexpensive. Maybe it was the sense of being part of the community we stopped in as we ate food that generally came from the recipes of the families from the diner owners. Whatever it was, diners were a big part of the auto culture back in the day and we loved it.
According to the American Diner Museum, a true diner is: a “prefabricated structure built at an assembly plant and transported to a permanent location for installation to serve prepared food.” There’s usually a counter, stools and a food preparation area along the back wall. The website also states that a true diner is generally in the shape of a railroad car.
It didn’t start out 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. So, 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 after dusk. 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 sprang up in many communities, all of them willing to serve anyone who was out after dark and hungry, all of them popular.
As more wagons and carts appeared, eventually 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, many of them were purchased and converted to a more stationary diner than the lunch wagons and carts.With the advent of the automobile, even as early as the 1920s, the diner became a static roadside destination. The buildings were longer, tables and bathrooms were being 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. Diner owners were more intent on making a living selling cheap food than they were on maintaining their buildings. Honestly, diners had developed a reputation for serving the “unsavory elements of society.”
The owners tried to improve that image in the wake of the growth of automobile travel. Some added “Miss” to the name of their diners, adding a feminine, home-cooked feeling to the restaurants…..
…..and they tried to soften their image further by adding flowers, shrubs and other landscaping to the exteriors.
The low overhead and the not-exactly-fine-dining probably helped diners to stay in business during the Depression. Let’s face it, the food was cheap and the amenities were basic – They were made to withstand peril like the Great Depression, and they did.
To help clean up the image, more modern diners with chrome and stainless steel interiors became popular with owners and travelers alike.
In the early 1940s, buses began replacing electric street cars providing another opportunity for entrepreneurs to own a low-cost car to convert to a diner.
Demand for the diner increased yet again after World War II. We were a country on the move at the height of our automobile culture and the roadside diner fueled us for our journeys. By now it wasn’t unusual for the diner to sport Formica counters, leatherette booths and wood-paneled walls. The windows were larger than ever, and some still had stainless steel exteriors.
America’s desire for cheap food grew into a desire for fast cheap food. The advent of the fast-food restaurants beginning in the late 50s cut into the diner market. The response to this was a design revamp. Tudor, Mediteranean 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. Hindsight makes me wonder if this was a good idea, given the coming downturn in “Dinerville”.
In the 1970s, people like our friend 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 documentarians like Richard Gutman inspired us to fall in love with them all over again.
It fascinates me that diners began as lunch wagons or food carts because we eat at quite a few of them today. Here in Madison they don’t allow food trucks, only food carts (pulled with automobiles, not horses 😉 There are festivals of food carts, and they line the Capitol square during the outside Dane County Farmer’s Market from spring to fall. We’ve eaten well from food trucks too. On our travels we always choose them over any fast food option. With these things in mind, I feel like it’s safe to say diner culture has come full circle. It’s comforting.
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