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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- White Mana – Hackensack
- Tick Tock Diner – Clifton
- Summit Diner – Summit
- Skylark Diner – Edison
- Silver Diner – Cherry Hill
- Americana Diner – Shrewsbury
- Barnegat Diner – Barnegat
- Garden State Diner – Newark
- Tops Diner – East Newark
Do you have a favourite diner and if so what makes it special?