The Diner

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We are looking down the polished marble counter toward the roost of the short-order cook in Lamy’s, a 1946 Worcester Lunch Car. The tools of his trade are all here: the No. 2 Welsbach broiler-griddle; the custom-made, gas-fired, three-burner short-order plate; the stainless steel No. 10 Pitco Frialator with twin baskets; the chrome-topped Hamilton Beach milk-shake mixer; the six-quart Wyott cream dispenser; and the three-gallon coffee urn with glass liner. Set into the sunburst stainless steel backbar panels, dual exhaust fans stand ready to suck out grease and smoke at the flick of a switch. With its mahogany trim, Formica ceiling, milk-glass transom windows, ceramic-tile walls and floor, and chrome stools, Lamy’s represents the zenith of diner design during the diner’s golden age.

Classic diners were factory-built and designed for efficient service. There’s nothing quite like the experience of eating in one. As you slide onto a stool and swivel to face the counter, the waitress greets you with an offer of coffee. After placing your order from the glass-fronted menu board, you have some time—but not much—to take in the gleaming surroundings. You can see your meal come together in a flourish of activity, one of the many orders being juggled on the grill. (One short-order cook was called the Spider; he moved so fast he seemed to have eight arms.) The waitress, too, is in a state of perpetual motion, wiping down countertops, setting up for customers, taking orders, delivering food and advice, clearing tables, and starting all over.

The diner is a perfect home for all this motion. From the outside it looks as if it might even be moving itself, with its streamlined shape, railroad-car roof, and shining stainless-steel or porcelainenamel skin. Through the long, unbroken row of windows, daylight, head-lights, streetlights, and neon all flash on the interior fittings. There really aren’t any other buildings like diners.

They are an American invention. The diner was born in Providence, Rhode Island, as a horse-drawn lunch wagon in 1872. Although Walter Scott (“Scotty,” to distinguish him from the novelist) gets credit for the first one, many entrepreneurs improved upon his idea. By the early twentieth century lunch wagons were no longer horse-drawn, but they were still built on wheels, because that made it easier to move them to their sites. In fact, ease of transportation was the reason diners evolved into their familiar form, long, low, and narrow. This layout proved perfect for a counter dividing the diner in half, with the kitchen on one side and the customers on the other.

During their golden age, just before and after World War II, the landscape was dotted with six thousand of them.

The early diner builders tended to be immigrant craftsmen or first-generation Americans. For fifty years the most popular New England diners, Worcester Lunch Cars, were built almost entirely by French-Canadians who had settled in Worcester, Massachusetts. These carpenters, blacksmiths, sheet-metal workers, and tile setters allowed the Worcester catalogue to celebrate the “superior workmanship, rugged construction and long-lived operating efficiency” of its diners. Despite the generic similarity of one diner to the next, no two places are exactly alike. Lamy’s is in the same style as the Streamliner, in Savannah, Georgia, but the color schemes, the outside lettering, the counter marble, and the location of the doors are all different.

The look of diners has changed from the start. First, tables and booths were added to the counter seating to attract more customers. Designs of the 1920s were known for their modern white interiors; Art Deco characterized the futuristic thirties; stainless steel clad many of the diners of the forties and fifties. Elaborate and highly undinerly colonial and Mediterranean designs have dominated the last three decades, and time will doubtless find these aberrations many eloquent fans. But the period just before and after World War II was indisputably the diner’s golden age, when the landscape was dotted with six thousand of them, all vying to satisfy the appetites of Americans taking to the road.

Recent years have seen a revival of interest in diners. Abandoned ones are being rescued and restored, and new old-style diners are being ordered from the same manufacturers who used to build them. The great Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, had the foresight in 1984 to acquire Lamy’s, and a million visitors a year walk through this thirty-nine-seat classic.

The diner has become an American icon, and its renaissance has spread across the United States, into Canada, and even to Europe. Not long ago the Montreal restaurateur Daniel Noiseux bought a dilapidated 1950s stainlesssteel diner in Massachusetts, trucked it to Canada, restored it to its original glory—using French-Canadian craftsmen—and opened it as Le Galaxie Diner. Looking for something new, Noiseux found it in an old American diner.