A last look at an American institution
The diner first appeared, in the form of a lunch wagon, on the streets of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872. In that era, every restaurant in town closed at 8 P.M. It occurred to Walter Scott, a man whose entire previous experience as a restaurateur had been confined to selling pies from a basket, to load a covered express wagon with food and park it outside the offices of the Providence Journal. And there he stayed, every night from dusk until two in the morning, for the next forty-five years, selling sandwiches and boiled eggs to the compositors for a nickel, and sliced chicken to the “dude trade” for thirty cents.
Scott’s idea spread rapidly. A decade later, his imitators throughout the East were running elaborate wagons with kitchens and counters, whose stained-glass windows were etched with portraits of the Presidents. For a while, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union operated a fleet of these, attempting to lure men from the saloons with cheap, hot dinners.
Diners began to come off their wheels in 1897, when the street-railway companies of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston started to switch from horse-drawn to electric cars. The abandoned cars were sold for as little as ten dollars each to entrepreneurs who moved them to vacant lots, installed counters, and opened for business. Within live years, more than five hundred trolley-lunches appeared. They tended to be rough, seamy places, and they gave the fledgling industry a bad name—respectable people did not frequent diners.
This was changed by Patrick J. “Pop” Tierney, a New Rochelle manufacturer who is still remembered in the business as the man who helped legitimize the diner by “bringing the toilet inside.” In 1905 Tierney started selling miniature restaurants, thirty feet long, ten and a half feet wide (the maximum width permitted for railway shipment), with barrel roofs. By 1917—when Scott retired, grumbling that new and overweening customers were demanding a slice of onion with their egg sand wiches—Pop Tierney was turning ou t a diner a day.
During the twenties, diners appeared in every crossroads town, serving the motorist as the depot restaurant had served the rail traveler of the last century. By the end of the decade, they were firmly established as good, inexpensive places to eat, a reputation that carried on into the thirties, when manufacturers were touting the running of a diner as a “depression-proof business” that could bring a successful operator upwards of $12,000 a vear.
The look of the diner changed during the late twenties and thirties. Transoms borrowed from railroad-car design replaced Tierney’s barrel roof, and stainless steel took the place of wood. When the railroads introduced streamlining, the diners followed suit. This sort of ingenuous imitation gave rise to the persistent legend that diners were reconditioned railroad cars.
The diner went through its final transformation in the years following World War n. At first, it simply grew larger; but eventually the old form was abandoned in favor of Moorish and Mediterranean buildings, made of concrete and surrounded by huge parking lots. This expensive refurbishing meant an increase in the price of the meal. The resulting vacuum was rilled by the fast-food franchise chains, which gave those who were comforted by such things the illusion of having the same cheap food in the same room whether thev were eating in Fresno or Bangor. Today the franchisers have swept the field; the diner is being upgraded out of existence.
Of course, the diner is one of our humbler traditions. But when the last one gives way to a Mediterranean fantasy with gold-veined mirrors and two-dollar cheeseburgers, something singularly American will have vanished.