The Diner: An American Icon

The Diner Via SFGN's Dec. Mirror

(Mirror) It is a home away from home for many Americans, a place to socialize, eat when working a late shift or enjoy a meal any time of day.

It is an American icon that has appeared and is engrained in all facets of popular culture.

Diners attract a wide spectrum of the local populations, and are usually small or family run businesses. From the mid-twentieth century onwards, they have been seen as quintessentially American, (no other country in the world has an equivalent to the Diner)reflecting the perceived cultural diversity and egalitarian nature of the country at large. 
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Throughout much of the 20th century, diners, mostly 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 northeastern diners' menus, testifies to this cultural link. More than  350,000 Greeks immigrated to the U.S. bringing with them the concept of a coffee house and business smarts, today,more than 500 diners in NYC are Greek-owned.

The concept of the diner began when Walter Scott, a Rhode Island entrepreneur, repurposed a horse-pulled wagon into a car that served sandwiches, coffee, pies, and eggs to people late at night. He quit his job as a printer to sell food from the wagon. Soon other companies followed to produce lunch wagons or early diners. During the Depression many diners stayed in business due to their low cost menus. The demand for diners increased after World War II when many service men and women returned home.

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 shiftworkers 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 Nighthawksdepicts 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 Automatall-night restaurant. 

But as a rule, diners were always symbols of American optimism. Norman Rockwellmade 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. Happy Days, Grease, Diner, American Graffiti, Twin Peaks, When Harry met Sally), diners and soda fountains have come to symbolize the period of prosperity and optimism in 1950s America. 

They are shown as the place where teenagersmeet 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 Seinfeld. 

The diner's cultural influence continues today. Many non-prefab restaurants (including franchises like Denny’s ) have copied the look of 1950s diners for nostalgicappeal, while Waffle House  uses an interior layout derived from the diner. The Poiriers Diner  and Munson Diner, both manufactured by the Kullman Dining Cart Company of Lebanon NJ, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Diners provide a nationwide, recognizable, fairly uniform place to eat and assemble, desirable traits mirrored by fast food chains. 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.

One hundred years on, American diners are as popular as ever. During most elections political candidates often make a stop at the local diner to meet voters. Known for their reasonable prices, comfort food, no pretense and friendly owners and staff, they are still a regular stop for workers, families, children, adults, students, seniors and housewives covering the spectrum of all ethnic groups.


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