Coffee shop. Greasy spoon. Lunch Counter. Call it what you will. But if the eats are cheap and no-frills— as well as hot and hearty—then chances are good you’re being served a burger, corned beef hash and eggs or a fresh-from-the- dessert-case piece of pie in an all-American eatery known as a diner.
Nobody knows diners better than chef Guy Fieri, the spiky blonde-haired host of several Food Network TV shows, including the long-running Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, where he and his crew travel the country in search of “love, peace and taco grease,” or maybe just a good ol’ fashioned pastrami sandwich, in the funkiest joints they can find.
“We’ve visited and continue to visit some of the greatest places in the United States,” says Fieri, 46, in his cookbook Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: The Funky Finds in Flavortown (Harper Collins, 2013). “To have a chance to recognize these family institutions—these cultural epicenters—is unbelievable.”
Today’s diners—community hubs that usually consist of a prefabricated railroad car-shaped structure outfitted with a counter, stools and a bustling open kitchen—trace their lineage to the late 1800s when a swell in the number of factory workers, primarily in the Northeast, created a demand for quick, affordable meals—and lots of them.
According to the American Diner Museum, around 1858, Walter Scott, a part-time pressman and type compositor1 in Providence, R.I., started it all when he served sandwiches and coffee to newspaper night workers and men’s club patrons initially from a basket, and later from a horse-drawn food cart.
Similar carts and wagons4 (foreshadowing today’s restaurant food truck craze) sprung up all over the East Coast and by the early 20th century, manufacturers were building moveable structures, dining cars big enough to accommodate both tables and customers, and the diner was born.
By the early 1940s, most diners were enduring fixtures and the cheap comfort food they offered became a fixture in American life, especially during the 1950s, the golden age of diners, when nearly 6,000 diners operated across the country before the fast-food industry boomed.
Over 60 years later, white- apron-wearing waiters and waitresses still serve up blue-plate specials with a smile at some 2,000 diners nationwide, many which have been celebrated on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. “They say, ‘Thank you for coming,’ and I say, ‘Thank you for existing,’ because this is what America is about,” says Fieri.
Here are some of the best, per Richard Gutman, author of American Diners: Then and Now, and Randy Garbin, founder of roadsidefood.com.
Operating in a 1940s silver dining car located next to a cemetery, this lively family-owned business serves breakfast all day.
A fixture along historic Route 66 in Arizona for 25 years, the eye-catching eatery now operates downtown offering classic American, Southern and soul food.
St. Paul, Minn.
This 1936 classic, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1983, appeared in movies including The Mighty Ducks.
11th Street Diner
Miami Beach, Fla.
With only a handful of diners left in Florida, Gutman is partial to this 1949 model, a 24-hour cornerstone of the city’s Art Deco district.
Barnegat Light, N.J.
Few can resist the mustache- shaped pancake at this 1958 Fodero Dining Car Co. car, located on Long Beach Island. Feeding seaside crowds since 1959.