Hang in There, Diner.

Note the Dessert Case.

Will we eventually ruin the diner?  It won’t be intentional, but I feel like the diner will always be fighting progress.  You walk into any establishment, across the board, and it is probably almost unrecognizable compared to what it was 10-20 years ago.  I was talking over the weekend about Wawa.  Remember when you actually had to give your sandwich order to another human?  Pretty shocking.  It reminds me of that quasi-urban legend about the criminal that escapes prison, steals a car, but then can’t figure out the new pumps at gas stations because he’s been locked up for so long.  Everything changes, but the diner tries desperately to hang onto its niche.

There is something inherently retro about the diner, and I suppose that is what helps it keep its identity.  People are expecting an experience straight out of a different time, and you see places really embracing that ‘50s vibe.  They have a jukebox, or some other Happy Days style touches, and everyone smiles with a sense of nostalgia when they walk in the door.  I wonder if that nostalgic feeling has a shelf life, though.  Are we another generation or so away from not seeing the value of a good diner?

I guess the biggest battles a diner faces would be the trends to go healthy and gourmet, and people placing a lot of importance on a word like, “ambiance.”  I remember going to the diner on weekends as a kid and there were a lot of things about the experience that people probably wouldn’t call desirable (and I’m not even talking about sitting too close to the smoking section).  We almost always had to wait in line.  The seating area itself was a little cramped.  The booths were made of the finest plastic upholstery, and maybe most of all there was the “diner din.”  There was a lot going on.  Waiters and waitresses moving fast, you could hear the noise from the kitchen, it was certainly more hectic than relaxing.  Do I want to stand in line, sit in an uncomfortable chair, and listen to plates crash around for a half hour?  If the pancakes are good, I do, but I could see this turning off a lot of people.

The diner menu is a legendary thing.  You want Frosted Flakes?  Done.  Meatloaf dinner?  Not a problem.  A typical diner menu is just pages and pages of stuff that makes you wonder, does anyone ever order this?  Does someone ever come in here and have a ribeye?  I think most people probably go into a diner and know exactly what they are getting.  No menu necessary, but if you happened to want an open-faced turkey sandwich with gravy, feel free to unleash that order.  I always wondered if you could call the diner’s bluff.  Order something out of left-field and actually have them say, “we don’t have that.”  If anyone has ever pulled that off, I’d love to hear about it.

One thing most diner’s do lack is a typical array of healthy options or foods that cater to new fangled trends.  I’m guessing, but if you stumbled into a typical diner and tried to order some buckwheat pancakes, organic turkey bacon and some chai tea…you might get a look. And, rightfully so.  I think if a diner tries to go gourmet or trendy then they really aren’t being true to themselves, and they are setting themselves up for disaster.  There will always be a newer and trendier spot to eat, but people go to diners, because they know what are going to get and that’s exactly what they want.  I hope we never get to the point where people don’t want a good diner.

Five Sure Signs You’re In a Real Diner:

  1. Paper Placemats
  2. The Dessert Case—filled with elaborate cakes and pies that you never see ordered.
  3. There are people willingly sitting at a counter
  4. You have to pay at the register
  5. Cigarette Machine



11 thoughts on “Hang in There, Diner.

  1. great piece. i think minella’s covers all qualification but number 5? hmm, i am a health addict. but i love a good diner day every one in a while. like the swing of congressional republican to den to republican balance, i think there will always be a swing back to classic food made well, and affordable.

    like the liberries you avoid, 3-Putt, i hope classic can remain timeless.


  2. Minella’s at one point had a cigarette machine. I guess they are hard to come by these days, but at least a “history of having a cigarette machine”

  3. I recently ate at a diner that had gone groumet/trendy, so it definitely was not being true to its heritage, but it was pretty cool. The place was packed and reservations were necessary (so not diner) but they made it clear they were just a converted diner that was going to take the diner menu and make it twice as expensive and twice as good. I had the meatloaf. Damn good, but not the kind of meatloaf that you cover with ketchup. Catsup?

    I had been fooled for a long time by the name; Buckhead Diner. I really thought it was a authentic diner. Turns out they had become surrounded over the years by Chops, Fogo d’Chao, etc… and had to keep up. I have to hand it to them, they make a killing, but it wasn’t the same. They did have items 2 and 3 listed above, and it would be a safe bet to say that they were 40% authentic.

  4. Trendy Diners are why moo-slims hate us. It’s nice to have a last bastion of heart attack food, it’s like a warm blanket on a cold day.

    Diner Capital of the world? New Jersey baby. Phoenix, Bendix, you name it, we got it. Ate at one on Saturday. Love the “breakfast any time of the day”.

  5. I agree that “breakfast any time of day” is essential.

    Also, the waitresses need to have been working there for at least 10+, preferably 20+ years.

  6. Given Diners tend to be people’s drunk food, have we done a “top ten hangover cures” here? I’m sure you have your fair share gross.

  7. I don’t think I’ve ever successfully cured a hangover.

    Drink a gallon of water and go back to bed?

    I don’t kid myself, when I’m hungover I know I’m going to be hungover all day.

    That said, I think a nice pancake breakfast or something always goes down well after drinking.

    Underrated hangover food? Desserts (less ice cream)

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