I am sitting in a diner as I write to you. The gentleman to my right is tapping his butter knife against his coffee saucer, ruminating about his hospital-bound cronie that smokes too damn much. The hey-hun-what-can-I-get-ya server is slapdashing coffee and greasy home fries. There is a constant rattle of broken English-meets-Spanish-meets-Greek echoing from the little slit in the wall from where the omelettes, burgers, and club sandwiches emerge.
This place has been open for longer than most of the dinosaurs sitting at the formica counter have been roaming this small town. The menu is an epic lexicon of cooking calamities, standards, and way too many sticky fingers. The young lady to my left is here for her first day of training, both as a server and within this mausoleum. Yet, her story will be part of this bump on the American landscape like so many before her and the many who will follow. She is really in for it.
What makes diners — seemingly small, unsuspecting, and casual — so iconic in American dining? And how do they stay relevant and afloat in the sea of edgy, groundbreaking, artistic fast casuals and fine-dining restaurants that pop up every year? Here’s why diners are integral to our culinary culture:
Their Nature and Food Are Approachable
Diners ripple from sea to shining sea, across the food landscape. The food is as approachable as the conversations happening between two strangers sharing elbow space, perched upon spinning stools.
“Order up! Tacos, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parm, and two eggs over easy. Order up!”
We emigrate into the safety of diners near and far because they are, well, safe. The choices — while too many — are well within our vernacular of food that is familiarly approachable. All dining experiences do not need to be adventures. Chicken fingers are perfectly acceptable to order out. So are chicken pot pie, gyros, and liver with onions.
“Pancakes. Omelette with ‘merican. Pick up!”
Diners Are Where Trends Go to Die — But Not in a Bad Way
What’s hot and what’s not really doesn’t matter at Dancing Nancy’s Diner. Instead, what sticks to the menu are those items that have moved into ubiquity. Might you find hummus at a diner? Sure. Or sriracha on the table? Yes. A burger hugged by a brioche roll? Probably. Will you find Memphis-style fried chicken. No. Not yet. Yet. Bao buns? No. Not everything trickles to and through diners. Meatloaf, roast turkey, croquettes, and stuffed peppers have staying power, just like the diner itself. Trends often hang around, fads don’t visit.
To the contrary, trends can emanate out from diners, too. Upscale varieties of grilled cheese, for instance, have been dotting contemporary, hipster menus for the last several years. Biscuits with myriad fillings and smears are fancifully filling in the holes on brunch menus. Reubens are back with a vengeance; all with a nod to the diner arena that kept the light shining brightly on these countertop classics.
Comfort food is a misnomer. All food should make you feel good. Diners are denizens for food that isn’t over-the-top or from untested waters. Rather, the crews that man the kitchens are working from well-rehearsed scripts, aged equipment, and tried cooking moves that churn and burn. With a modicum of quality, but more the flatulence-fueled gastrointestinal stamina that is steeped in rich gravy and Salisbury steak, is what powers us to adore diners.
Nostalgia defines this so-called comfort food. Take me back to a time when sports weren’t about big money, socializing meant talking, not texting, and food was cooked with sincerity. This nostalgia is palpable in the unmodernized color schemes and unkept Naugahyde booths of coffee shops, chuck wagons, and unfussy eateries billed as diners.
“Lasagna. Garlic bread. Piiiiiiiick up!”
The Softness of the People
People know each other at diners. Going into a diner isn’t a big event. A meal at a diner is more for sustenance and less about the experience. It is often about community. Weren’t diners the pioneers of communal dining long before the Gen X spillover bellied up to the reclaimed wood high-top tables? On the road, a diner is a welcome solace. “Open 24-hours” is more of a decree, a promise of hospitality than it is just a place to eat. It is about breaking bread at the altar of welcomed strangers that share this blue-gray lit moment in time, perhaps by the glow of an ignored TV or just the din of cling-clanging glasses.
“Two fries. Gravy on the side. Order up, Grace!”
The high-powered, movin’ ‘n shakin’-4-star-gettin’ place that is super hot right now will, most likely, be tomorrow’s moved and shook. Diners, however, will forever be fossilized within the culinary landscape. Slow to move and even slower to become extinct. Say what you want about surprisingly “new” food; surprises get old.
The travel brochures in all their glossy glory wait by the entry with their promise of bargains at the factory outlets, the family adventure park with a giant purple elephant on the cover, the factory tour of the regional ice cream place that are simply too shiny to pass up. And right there is the super ball machine. Those little gravity-defying balls that are lost about eight minutes after purchase, but are as casually familiar as the pot roast, grilled cheese, and clam strips offered inside.
What defines a diner is a mystery that will forever haunt us. Is it the silver, stainless once-portable vessel that now sit roadside? Or is this thread woven into Americana four walls made up by a mindset? For whatever it is worth, the casual bend on solo, family, late-night, early-morning, greasy-spoon dining is beyond rigid definition. Instead, devotees assemble en masse at the promise of a belly hug gently born from the diner womb.
“Apple pie to go!”