The aroma of filter coffee, fresh pancakes and a server that wants your order not your life story. The diner is a huge marker of American culture, no matter where you go, any city in any state you’ll find a bottomless cup of coffee and formica countertop. It’s a place where different sections of American society rub shoulders and start their day.
In a recent visit to the States I had the pleasure of going to a wonderful diner called The Daily Dose, I’d been once before but this return visit allowed me to fully appreciate the experience. Dusted with crisp Wisconsin snow, this cosy coffee palace welcomed me in out of the cold with a cheery ‘How’re you doing?’. My companions for this pilgrimage, the boyfriend Preston and his mother, had no idea how excited I was by this staple of American life.
Rhode Island gave the US its first diners when a man called Walter Scott used a horse drawn wagon to sell food and drink to those who didn’t make it back from work early enough to make it to the normal eateries. Affordable hearty food at all hours was surprisingly popular and foreshadowed our own international desire for simple fast food at any time, but that simple diner formula continues to this day.
The man responsible for the railway-carriage look and the term ‘diner’ was Patrick J. Tierney. Like Scott, he started out in the lunch-wagon business, even building his own units, but as the age of the motor car rolled in, new zoning laws put restrictions as to where they could go and the wagons themselves were falling into disrepute in the eyes of the public. Tierney put them by the roadside and cleaned them up, adding electric lighting and metal surfaces to appear shiny and modern. By the 1930’s most diner manufacturers had ’streamlined’ designs that reflected the changing look of aircraft and automobiles, suggesting speed and giving us the look we’re used to.
"They were built by Italian tile-setters and marble-workers, by German sheet metal workers, and French-Canadian carpenters. It was a melting pot of these different cultures to produce a building that is uniquely American.” says Richard Gutman, author of American Diner: Then and Now. A reminder that what makes something truly American is the diverse range of people, skills and experience required to create it.
To accompany my bottomless cup of filter coffee I had a thick (or maybe thicc would be more accurate) bacon, egg, ham and cheese toastie with a honey-mustard-mayo dip on the side, it was crusty warm and delicious. However it was upstaged by the entrees that was had with our coffees. The biggest, gooiest, sweetest cinnamon roll you have ever seen in your life. It was so warm the icing drizzled itself down the side and dripped into my heart. It melted away the Wisconsin snow.
If in the UK, tea can be drunk by builders and Queens, then the American diner is where they serve construction workers and Presidents, literally, you can’t consider becoming president if you don’t grip and grin in a local diner. British culture, and the way that industry grew in the UK in comparison, couldn’t foster diners in the same way, the only equivalent within the UK is the greasy spoon. Fast and cheap comfort food and big breakfasts, even more so nowadays, I think it’s Greggs, where all walks of life pass bay or stay for a moment.
In 2019, diners remain popular and they have even evolved to suit the taste and lifestyles of modern patrons. There’s varied menus that suit dietary requirements like all vegan diners or places that purely serve breakfast - all day breakfast isn’t a dietary requirements but it should be.