Published on July 5, 2016
A diner is a prefabricated fast food restaurant building characteristic of American life, especially in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and in other areas of the Northeastern United States, as well as in the Midwest, although examples can be found throughout the United States, Canada, and parts of Western Europe. Diners are characterized by offering a wide range of foods, mostly American, a distinct exterior structure, a casual atmosphere, a counter, and late operating hours. “Classic American Diners” are often characterized by an exterior layer of stainless steel—a feature unique to diner architecture. Diners share culture with drive-ins, and car culture with hot rods and muscle cars.
Inspired by the streamlined trains, and especially the Burlington Zephyr, Roland Stickney designed a diner in the shape of a streamlined train called the Sterling Streamliner in 1939. Built by the J.B. Judkins coach company, who had built custom car bodies, the Sterling and other diner production ceased in 1942 at the beginning of American involvement in World War II.
Two Sterling Streamliners remain in operation: the Salem Diner at its original location in Salem, Massachusetts and the Modern Diner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Diners attract a wide spectrum of the local populations, and are generally small businesses. From the mid-twentieth century onwards, they have been seen as quintessentially American, reflecting the perceived cultural diversity and egalitarian nature of the country at large.
Throughout much of the 20th century, diners, particularly in the Northeast, were often owned and operated by Greek-American immigrant families. The presence of Greek casual food, like gyros and souvlaki, on several diners’ menus, testifies to this cultural link.
Diners frequently stay open 24 hours a day, especially in cities, and were once America’s most widespread 24-hour public establishments, making them an essential part of urban culture, alongside bars and nightclubs; these two segments of nighttime urban culture often find themselves intertwined, as many diners get a good deal of late-night business from persons departing drinking establishments. Many diners were also historically placed near factories which operated 24 hours a day, with night shift workers providing a key part of the customer base. All this meant diners could serve as symbols of loneliness and isolation. Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting Nighthawks depicts a diner and its occupants, late at night. The diner in the painting is based on a real location in Greenwich Village, but was chosen in part because diners were anonymous slices of Americana, meaning that the scene could have been taken from any city in the country-and also because a diner was a place to which isolated individuals, awake long after bedtime, would naturally be drawn. The spread of the diner meant that by 1942 it was possible for Hopper to cast this institution in a role for which, fifteen years earlier, he had used an Automat all-night restaurant.
But as a rule, diners were always symbols of American optimism. Norman Rockwell made his 1958 painting, The Runaway, generically American by placing his subjects, a young boy and a protective highway patrolman, at the counter of an anonymous diner. In television and cinema (e.g. The Blob, Happy Days, Grease and Diner), diners and soda fountains have come to symbolize the period of prosperity and optimism in America in the 1950s. They are shown as the place where teenagers meet after school and as an essential part of a date. The television show Alice used a diner as the setting for the program, and one is often a regular feature in sitcoms such as Seinfield.
The diner’s cultural influence continues today. Many non-prefab restaurants (including franchises like Denny’s) have copied the look of 1950s diners for nostalgic appeal, while Waffle House uses an interior layout derived from the diner.
Manhattan was once known for its diners. The Moondance Diner, was shipped to Wyoming to make room for development. Diners provide, in rather the same way that fast food chains do, a nationwide, recognizable, fairly uniform place to eat and assemble. The types of food served are likely to be consistent, especially within a region (exceptions being districts with large immigrant populations, in which diners and coffee shops will often cater their menus to those local cuisines), as are the prices charged. At the same time, diners have much more individuality than fast food chains; the structures, menus, and even owners and staff, while having a certain degree of similarity to each other, vary much more widely than the more rigidly standardized chain and franchise restaurants.
The Poirier’s Diner and Munson Diner, both manufactured by the Kullman Dining Car Company of Lebanon, New Jersey, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.