The First Fast Food

How the diner became an American institution

By Shana Liebman

“We’ve always got the diner,” Shrevie assures his buddies as he looks around at the long counter, bucket booths, chrome-plated walls and multi-page plastic menus. In the 1982 film Diner, and in real life, the classic American 1950s-era diner is a fixture of the community. For more than a century, Americans have cherished its quaint charm and retro vibe. But this not-so-fast food phenomenon owes its longevity to the fact that it is so quintessentially and perhaps comfortingly American—like a slice of warm apple pie on a white plate.

These days, the diner is still evolving. Chef April Bloomfield (The Breslin, The Spotted Pig) just revealed plans for an Upper West Side spot that will “elevate the classic diner experience.” In Philadelphia, a Four Seasons vet recently opened a hipster diner with an all-day breakfast—and cocktails. This year, the Food Network launched American Diner Revival in which chef Amanda Freitag and designer Ty Pennington help revitalize struggling American diners. The diner’s staying power is remarkable and is wrapped up in its history.

The concept dates to 1872 when Walter Scott, a printer in Providence, RI, used a horse-drawn wagon to serve sandwiches, pies and coffee to the night shift at the Providence Journal. The operation was such a money-maker that he eventually quit his day job as a printer. Over the next couple of decades, hundreds of other New Englanders launched wagons of their own.

In 1913, Jerry Mahoney rooted the trend by establishing the first stationary diner in New Jersey, and, during the 1920s, in New Rochelle, NY, a manufacturer named Patrick J. “Pop” Tierney started building these mobile restaurants from scratch. His version looked like the dining car of a train (which inspired the name “diner”) and featured stained glass windows with the slogan “Pure Food, Cleanliness, Quick Service, and Popular Prices.”

That motto became its destiny. After World War II, more than 6,000 diners with gleaming chrome, neon signs and folksy service sprouted up beyond the urban northeast—in the suburbs, next to highways and even in the Midwest. The 1950s was their heyday decade. While restaurants were for the bourgeois crowd, diners symbolized equality in a country that was newly identifying as the leader of the free world.

“The thing about this democratic counter is that anyone can go in and sit down. It can be a professor, it can be a worker,” says Richard Gutman, a leading diner historian and director of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University who has written four books on the diner including American Diner: Then and Now.

Diner Vignette
Classic American diners—now and then, and from the 1959-set film Diner.

Despite a failed makeover attempt in the 1970s (when a few in Manhattan were upgraded with candlelight and wine lists), diners have held to this 1950s idealism, aesthetically and symbolically, as places where anyone could find a simple meal at a fair price at any hour.

“A long, low building, covered in brightly colored porcelain enamel or sheathed in stainless steel—the diner was a building that didn’t even need a sign,” says Gutman. “And the customer knew what to expect on the inside: home-style cooking, baking frequently done on premises, breakfast anytime, and good value for your money.”

As a result, diners were places that outliers, eccentrics and night-dwellers took refuge—a concept reinforced by pop culture. Suzanne Vega’s 1982 hit Tom’s Diner recounts an ordinary rainy morning, pensively drinking coffee at a warm diner in Manhattan. Edward Hopper’s most famous painting, “Nighthawks”, illustrates a couple finding solace in a brightly lit diner on a deserted night, and inspired Tom Waits’ moody 1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner.

John Updike, Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov used the diner to symbolize safety and inclusivity, while movies such as Pulp Fiction and Twin Peaks feature the diner as an insider’s place. As film critic John Patterson noted, “In the movies, the diner is a special kind of space, a mythic place, a zone of escape.”

More than a century after the concept took off, and despite major competition from fast food chains, the diner still reigns for its democratic charm and individuality. “You know the Big Mac will be the same everywhere, but you’re not going to find that at a diner,” says Gutman.

Many fast food chains have even tried to mimic the diner’s formula—Denny’s, Johnny Rockets, the Silver Diner chain in Washington, D.C. and California’s Ruby’s— but they fail to capture what America values most about the classic.

“Diners signify hard work, entrepreneurship, family values, honest food, home cooking and community,” says Gutman. “They’ve been around for 145 years, and I don’t see them going away ... ever.”


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