There's nothing quite like your local diner. Whatever side of the breakfast-lunch divide you fall on, that's the place to get it done deliciously right. But depending on where you live (or how many old movies you've seen), you may have noticed that a lot of those restaurants bear a striking resemblance to train cars, plucked off the rails and placed on a city street. Why? Well, that's exactly what happened to them.
Diners, Lunch Carts, and Dives
These days, there's a broad spectrum of eating establishments that might claim the name "diner." There are greasy spoons staffed by mom 'n' pop proprietors and there are national chains with menus full of cutesy names. There are even hipster diners that charge an arm and a leg for what's really just glorified mayonnaise. But one word that isn't associated with diners very often is "mobile."
That wasn't always the case. Before diners lost their wheels, they were primarily portable. And before they were shaped like train cars, they were shaped like horse carts. The very first of these eateries that would eventually take on so many different forms was the brainchild of a Providence, Rhode Island entrepreneur named Walter Scott. A printer by trade, in 1872 he found himself with a spare horse cart and struck on a brilliant idea. He'd fit the cart with the bare essentials he needed for food preparation and storage and roll it out at dusk as a "night lunch wagon for night-shift workers, theatergoers, and anyone else who happened to be out late and hungry. Serving coffee, pies, eggs, and sandwiches, his little horse-drawn venture was so successful that he was able to quit the printing business.
As you might expect, other mobile lunch carts soon began to follow suit, and people began building the establishments to sell to others. By the early 20th century, the market was ruled by three manufacturers: Worcester Lunch Car Company, Tierney, and O'Mahoney. Of course, because they were gaining popularity all around the country (especially the Atlantic seaboard), these new "dining cars" weren't pulled from their factories by horses. They were hooked onto cargo trains and sent along the rails to the enterprising short-order chefs who purchased them.
Greasy Spoon Chic
These dining carts would have their wheels removed once they reached their destination, forgoing the mobility of their predecessors but usually retaining their all-night hours. By the 1920's, "dining car" was shortened to "diner," and by the 1930's, the art deco stylings popular in train cars began to creep into brick-and-mortar diners, as well.
This was the era when the diner really took off, and it's the version of the diner that's probably most firmly cemented in the popular consciousness. If you want to find some real-life relics of this age, you probably can in your home state. But to really make sure, you should plan a trip to the diner capital of the world, New Jersey, where more than 600 of these sleek eateries are still in operation today.
This is the sleekly contoured diner of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks", at once both elegant and blue-collar.
It has been parodied many times. Here are but a few of them.
This one is, of course, my favorite:
Sometimes it gets political (Yes, that's Mr. Trump):
This one has James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe & Elvis Presley:
This one's done in Lego: