A slice of American life – the US Diner



The well-known (at least locally) Tick Tock diner at Clifton, New Jersey. Lit up like a Christmas tree so you can’t miss it as you drive by. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

EXPAT LIFE: What’s as American as apple pie?

How about the American diner?

This may be an icon in the US but even people outside of America have been absorbing diner culture since the advent of ‘Happy Days’ and the Fonz, into our living rooms, way back when.

Since the late sixties, countless movies and TV series have catalogued a bevy of onscreen imagery that includes cozy booths, counter top breakfasts, waitresses with attitude, and lots of “caw-fee”, all in a familiar rectangular-shaped building.

American diners are so iconic that at least two have been purchased and shipped to the UK and Germany, where, no doubt, they provide a very different alternative to local eateries. At home in the USA, their cultural value is so esteemed that some have even been added to the US National Register of Historic Places.

Diners occur throughout the USA but are much more concentrated in the northeast, including New Jersey and New York. New Jersey may be small but it is chock full of diners, with an estimated 526 throughout the state – the largest number in the US. This is almost one diner for every township. It’s no wonder that the humble diner is part of everyday life in Jersey.


The table in Holstens restaurant, Bloomfield, New Jersey where the character, ‘Tony Soprano’ was killed in the final episode of this world-famous TV series. Just one of many images that have helped conceptualize the culture of diners for non-Americans. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

Where did Diners begin?

The first true diner was a food wagon with walk up windows around the sides, introduced in 1872 in Rhode Island. This concept evolved into the Worcester Lunch Car Company which added seating to the wagon diner idea and sold their food in busy downtown areas.

It was in New Jersey where diners took off big time. Mass production of prefabricated diners was started by the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company of Elizabeth. The concept of the modern diner was born. Shaped like a railway carriage with those shiny chrome and flashy looks that diners are known for. Amazingly, one of these original diners still operates today in Summit, New Jersey.


One of the orginal ‘modern’ diners made by the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company of Elizabeth, New Jersey. This one is starting to look it’s age. Despite its unattractive appearance, it is rated as a good breakfast joint. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

Since 1872, diners have attained a nationally acknowledged level of cultural significance. Michelin star material, they may not be. But diners are recognized more for their appeal as a place where people from all walks of life, can congregate to get a meal or coffee at almost any time of the day or night.

What are diners like today?

Early diners needed to be mobile so they could be moved around to set up for business in different places. The earliest modern diner designs maintained this ‘rail carriage’ look. The interiors were furnished with a counter bench with seats for patrons to sit at while eating, with waitresses behind the counter serving or preparing food. Booths were provided around the window-lined sides of the diner.

Since these early days, diner designs have diversified to include the addition of more showy interiors including chandeliers and candelabras. Designs of diner exteriors moved away from the traditional carriage look.


An example of a diner with very different building style than the popular retro look. This looks decidedly more Spanish to my eye.Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

Older diners were renovated to add on modern areas. Additionally, newer diners were built from scratch using a variety of different formats. The influx of new multicultural owners into the diner business helped diversify the ‘diner’ image.


Another example of a ‘new’ diner building style. This one at Clinton, New Jersey looks like a Greek style building. However, when you look at the next photo, you will see that they have tried to cleverly combined the both old (rail carriage) and new styles by making this a railway station. Around the lefthand side is the railway carriage part. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



On the left-hand side of the Clinton Station Diner, is the essential ‘railway carriage’ part of the diner. While this is probably meant to look like a train pulled into the station, it looks a bit unnatural. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

Even though diner designs are far more varied than they were originally, retro-style diners, sometimes classified as Art Deco, with their shiny metallic exteriors, are still very popular.


The Park West diner in Little Falls New Jersey. While the outside looks flash, the food certainly wasn’t, the night we went there. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



Another example of the retro-style diner: Crystal Diner in Toms River, New Jersey. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



A very good example of the popular ‘retro’ style of diner, that combines elements from the past, with a modern style interior and size. Lots of chrome and bright neon lights. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



Counter seats inside a New Jersey diner. They have been upgraded a tad since the first diners were around. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ




Aside from booths and counter eating, most diners have an open area where you can sit down to eat at tables like traditional restaurants. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



An alternative style of counter seats than the normal bar stool, in the Tick Tock diner. A bit more comfortable and a good view of the TV. Just like home…Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



Typical booths in a New Jersey Diner. naturally they are not all like this. Colours and sizes of the booths can be quite different. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



The bright and beautifully Art deco-styled SkyLark Diner in Edison, New Jersey. The inside theme is based on an airport. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ


Certainly, there seems to be some gimmickry with diners. Here the restroom entrance hallway is decorated with a set of lights that flash periodically from one end to the other with bright red neon light. certainly an eye-catcher.Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

What sort of food do they serve?

Being classified as a diner today is more about the type of food and service offered than just appearance. They can offer almost any type of food with menus that often have multiple pages listing huge ranges of dishes.


The cover of the menu from Tick Tock Diner in New Jersey. This menu has since been updated but you can sense from the cover imagery a bit of the cultural feel to the place. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



Only part of the extensive menu offered by the Tick Tock diner in Clifton, New Jersey. Most of the dishes are home-cooked style food. tasty but not too exotic unless you’re an expat of course! Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

While some specialize in certain cuisines, the typical diner offers casual American food, usually in big proportions and at a lower price than many formal restaurants provide.


Lasagna is a big meal in any diner. This huge portion though was relatively tasteless and uninspiring. Not a diner that we will be visiting again. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

Most dishes have a home-cooked style that appeals to the wider general public. Simple meals like breakfasts, burgers, fries and club sandwiches are common fare, served with “caw-fee”, of course! Diners have also been influenced by the influx of immigrants and different cultures. Menus now offer Greek, Jewish and Spanish (Tex-Mex) meals much more commonly than in the past.


One version of nachos from the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton, New Jersey. Certainly a bit different to the standard dish we might get back in Australia and a very large serve. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ

And if you still have room after one of these sumptuous main meals, there is often a glass display case full of desserts to choose from.


A large glass display case showing lots of dessert options is a pretty familiar sight in many diners. Sadly, by the time you get to dessert, there’s very little room for more food.Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ



The SkyLark diner dessert window in Edison, New Jersey. Photo © ExpatAussieInNJ.

No-one ever leaves a diner feeling hungry.

Highly Rated Diners in New Jersey

Here are some well-rated New Jersey diners, each with a very different style and offering:

  1. White Mana – Hackensack
  2. Tick Tock Diner – Clifton
  3. Summit Diner – Summit
  4. Skylark Diner – Edison
  5. Silver Diner – Cherry Hill
  6. Americana Diner – Shrewsbury
  7. Barnegat Diner – Barnegat
  8. Garden State Diner – Newark
  9. Tops Diner – East Newark

 Do you have a favourite diner and if so what makes it special?



American vocabulary tips for eating out in the USA


6 thoughts on “A slice of American life – the US Diner

  1. So interesting! For me, the first and real diner is a fictional one: Arnold’s in Milwakee of the sitcom Happy Days!

    • Thanks for the comment. I too had only ever seen Arnold’s diner until I came here. Funnily enough, there is still a lot similar in many of the retro diners with their booths and deco interiors. Perhaps the jukebox is less common. certainly a bit of ‘Jersey’ that will exist here happily for a long while.

  2. Scotty’s diner! Great food that wasn’t junk. We were able to get home cooked meals and amazing milk shakes. Cnr of Lexington and (32,33 or 34th). New York.
    Loved it!!

  3. I liked the diner experience, food turnover is high, so you will always get a fresh meal.
    The Nevada Diner in Bloomfield is great. The dessert display is one of the best I have seen in any diner, and would put some good restaurants to shame

    • We haven’t tried this one yet so will get the family onto going here for a change. I like diners too mostly. The good ones actually provide quite tasty food considering it’s not gourmet cooking exactly. It always helps to know which are the best. We’ve been to a few but at least two were pretty stinky regards quality of food:)

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