Diner Food

Craig returns from the bathroom and I’m lost in thought.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks, slathering mayo on to his turkey club.

“Diners,” I respond.

We are at the West Side Diner on 9th Ave. and we’ve just seen a three hour play about British orphans.

“What about them?”

I open one of those tiny plastic cream-containers–the kind you only see in American diners–and add it to my coffee.

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“I’m thinking about how American they are,” I say. “I’m wondering what I would tell someone who wasn’t from America if they asked me ‘what’s a diner?'”

My whole life I’ve been eating at diners. For the first 11 years of my life, when we lived in Oceanside, New York, 80% of our outside meals were consumed at the East Bay Diner. My parents still talk about it like it was a second home: they talk about the people who worked there, about going there with family and friends, about how I would sit and color on the placemat and how everyone would comment that I was so well-behaved. (I still am!)

When I think diner, I am instantly transported to that giant room with circular tables and over-sized booths near windows overlooking either the parking lot or Long Beach Road. Spinning round and round in my memory is the refrigerator case filled with dense cakes slathered in frosting and crowned with maraschino cherries. I’d stare at the cakes, mesmerized, thinking that life couldn’t get much better. I remember the bowl of mints that weren’t really mints: more like colorful fruit gummies coated in chalk. And the machines that sold handfuls of M&Ms or Skittles.

A diner, I’d tell the non-American, is, quite simply, a place to get food. It’s America’s answer to the bistro, the trattoria, the noodle bar. It serves what could very well be described as American food. If you asked a random American to list the dishes he considered to be fundamentally American, chances are he’d list items you’d find on a diner menu: hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, milkshakes, and so on.

Diners often have a Greek slant and that’s because many diners in America are owned by Greeks. So in addition to the American food, you’ll also see Greek classics: most notably the Greek salad, which–unlike the Greek salad I ate in Greece–often involves a great deal of iceberg lettuce. In fact, iceberg lettuce is emblematic of a diner: you’ll find it in all diner salads, wilting on top of the diner burger, cradling a scoop of egg or chicken salad. That’s because, according to Wikipedia, “Cultivars of iceberg lettuce are the most familiar lettuces in the USA.”

Last night, at the diner, I saw a tourist couple settle into a booth and study their menus with a great deal of enthusiasm. They each ordered a glass of wine (she white, he red), shared a basket of cornbread, and then he noshed on pot roast while she dug into chicken breast. I could sense their relief as they ate their dinner: here was food they recognized at affordable prices. Familiarity, reliability: these are the reasons that Americans favor the diner.

“Maybe I’ll write an essay about diners for my blog tomorrow,” I said to Craig.

“What new thought do you have to contribute to the conversation about diner food?” he responded, finishing his last french fry.

I stirred my coffee and didn’t answer. Instead, I worked on my usual diner fare: an omelet with American cheese and onions.

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Comfort food at 11:30 PM: that’s what diners are all about.

27 comments

  1. Adam,

    We don’t always need original thought in essays about food. Reinforcement of the known (diners are a part of the American experience) paired with the particular (what diners mean to you and your experience last night at a diner) can lead the reader to self-reflection (me too, I’m a part of this, I eat at diners and think about their meaning and love the familiarity of the food served there). Sometimes we don’t need any more than that. The message: food is community and identity and it often tastes good.

  2. I think it’s safe to say that I would almost always take a tasty diner meal over a fancy-shmancy stuffed and sauced gourmet offering. Almost always. There is something so decidedly honest and gratifying about diner food – but maybe I’m just thinking of comfort food in general… Good stuff.

  3. While I always enjoy your humor, Adam, I really love these more thoughtful, contemplative pieces (like the Chez Panisse write up). Nicely done–and the photo of the turkey club and clunky coffee cup on that green table sums it up perfectly.

    Did you see the post yesterday about diners on the Saveur editor’s blog?

    http://forums.saveur.com/blogs/?q=node/240

  4. Lovely post. And this IS an original thought, as you mentioned a non-American asking what a diner is. What is well known to us would be new knowledge to them. David L. often posted basic known facts about Paris and I find them new and interesting (like a new thought). Anyhow, your last picture sums up the American diner. It is comfort food, omelet and fries. We all know they don’t necessarily belong together, but it works!

  5. From a native Jersey girl, kudos on your ode to diners, an original, pre-Starbucks “third place” for old folks, teenagers, average folk. In the Northeast, at least…not so much at the Southern or West Coast “roadhouse” type, but those are also friendly and delish. What would adolescence in NJ be without late night diner runs for disco fries and bottomless cherry cokes?

    What’s more, a good diner can satisfy everyone in your party on their own terms, unlike a chain restaurant that just plays one tune. Remember the backward Seinfeld episode with the clams casino (“Chef recommends!”)? Well, that didn’t turn out so well, but generally there’s something for every mood, age, dietary regime, and time of day at your local diner. Now I’m hungry….success, AG! ;)

  6. Sometimes I find it refreshing to put on some jeans and comfortable clothes and slip into a booth at a diner for simple food, quickly prepared, good to eat and at a cost that’s easy on the pocketbook. Kick back, relax and enjoy the food and the people watching. But back to the present where heads of iceberg lettuce have lost about half the sales they attracted five years ago, although quantities sold cut up in salads almost make up the difference. Adam, don’t you just love breakfast food? Me too, moi aussi!

  7. Here’s what I love about my diner: that the bran muffin is forever spelled “mjuffin” on the laminated breakfast menu.

    Here’s what I hate about my diner: the diet delite sections where everything has jello and/or cottage cheese. And the little plastic jelly squares with the foil tab that slices under my thumbnail.

    Thank you for the slice of Americana.

  8. So, as a canadian, I’ve always found the term “American cheese” to be a bit mystifying. Outside of America, ‘american cheese’ does not exist, and so i’m pretty sure it must be an alternate name for a cheese that we non-americans call something else.

    I’ve been told it’s processed cheese, I’ve also been told it’s cheddar. Which is it?

  9. LOL! Diners have great food! And I’m even more so finding out about their unique talents. Have you seen that Food Channel program with the “Guy” named “Guy”? It’s all on diners and it’s not bad. Although I have to say, 11:30 PM and eggs, cheese, fries, etc., cough cough artery cloggers cough cough.. hehe

    Take care! BTW, great Lobster video…

    Matt

  10. All the diners on Long Island seem to be closing up and turning into banks. As if we need more banks. My favorite part about going to a diner is getting a chocolate milk and scraping every last bit of syrup off of the sides with my straw and stirring it in. Add some matzoh ball soup, a cheeseburger deluxe, and a half-sour pickle and you’ve got yourself a meal!

  11. Okay, okay, I know I shouldn’t say anything about one’s choice of comfort food, but…..

    American cheese??????????

    For shame, AG. :)

    (Just kidding. Ish.)

  12. Great topic!!! What memories. Growing up on Long Island everybody had their favorite diner. In Long Island speak…”dinah”. Twin cheeseburger platter at 3am…. makes me cringe now. Fries with gravy, reubens, tuna melts, souvlakis, stuffed flounder with crabmeat and turkey club oozing with mayo were favorites. I love your description of the tower of pies. Still get a kick out of it today. I used to love the “health platters” or “for dieters” dishes they had. A scoop of mayo drenched tuna or full fat cottage cheese on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Don’t forget the breadsticks and melba toast. Memories.

  13. Adam, here in Brazil the iceberg lettuce is actually called “American lettuce”. ;)

  14. Craig’s turkey club looked really good.

    Growing up in South Florida, many of us had happy memories at Corky’s in North Miami Beach. That same type of atmosphere-cakes in the glass case, you know all the waitresses, and a menu with many choices.

  15. Hello….

    Just in case you want the low down on history…you can go to this site:

    http://www.dinermuseum.org/index.php

    There will be a new Diner Museum housed in a very cool industrial building in Providence, RI. For now, there is a diner section in the culinary museum on the Harborside Campus of Johnson & Wales, in case you are ever in the area. I think they are an important part of American culture/history for many of us. There are some great ones in New England (the Modern Diner in Pawtucket, just north of Providence is one…it is my favorite breakfast spot). Thanks for the post, Sweet Mary

  16. I’m with the above Canadian — just what exactly is American cheese?

    I had a great experience at a diner on my first trip to NYC recently. It was about 2:30 am and I had just introduced myself to someone I had been wanting to meet for a few days. We went walking in downtown Manhattan in the cold, looking for somewhere to go and talk. We found a 24 hour diner and shared the “belgian waffles” – complete with whipped cream from a can and strawberry jam. We stayed and talked until 6am, watching the busy restaurant keep filling tables despite the time of night (or morning). Cliched as it may be, I felt like I had witnessed a small piece of the American life.

  17. Hey AG,

    I just moved to Australia not too long ago, and I truly miss good old diner food. The Aussies LOVE their cafes, but they serve nothing similar to the American diner. Usually just mediocre Italian pasta and pizza, tons of sandwiches made of baguettes, and thats about it. They sometimes serve liquor though, which helps me forget about the crappy food. I think because I grew up with diners, I am able to overlook and even crave the mediocrity!

    My favorite part about diners are that you can get breakfast any time of day! I would always get a big waffle and tons of crispy bacon…mmm, bacon! That is another thing they don’t have down under. Just a floppy, limp piece of ham they like to call bacon.

    Good post. It made me hungry and miss home!

  18. Ah the diner. When I worked in Manhattan last year I would frequent the Skylight Diner on the corner of 34th Street and 9th Ave. There is something about comfort food that goes a long way. What is there not to love about a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato and a side of fries.

    I live in Boston and our diners here are different. They hold a very special place in local architecture. Many that are converted freight cars while others were built specifically as lunch cars. This article is a very interesting read http://www.sec.state.ma.us/mhc/mhcpdf/sectione.pdf

  19. Im a New Jerseyan so I really related to this post. However, I’ve never been to a diner anywhere else.. only those late nights on a NJ highway, coming back from a trip or a concert. Those are the times when I can really go for a diner dessert.. nice big slice of layer cake or a milkshake…mmm. Of course breakfast at 2am is always good too.

  20. Canadians: Wikipedia says, “Today’s American cheese is generally no longer made from a blend of cheeses, but instead is manufactured from a set of ingredients which meets the legal definition of cheese and includes ‘whey protein concentrates’.”

    Apparently it is a relative of cheddar, but they don’t talk much anymore.

    Leena: you and my Australian husband should get a Bacon Swap going. :) He regularly bemoans the total absence of Australian bacon from the States.

    (I won’t tell him that you compared it to ham. We’re going to breakfast buffet tomorrow and I’m already anticipating having to duck Cultural Differences Lecture #47: “What’s inadequate about American bacon and how Australian bacon is not English bacon and not ham and why can’t Americans have it here when it’s so so so nice?” And me a vegetarian!)

    By the way, get some Bundaberg ginger beer while in Oz. One thing I’ll admit that the Aussies do right is their sodas, made with real sugar and not HFCS, and Bundaberg is from the gods!

  21. I absolutely ADORE diners. I grew up in Pennsylvania and ate at more than my share of diners over the years. I love ’em. Sadly, there are not nearly enough diners in the metro Atlanta area.

    When I was in New Jersey for a speaking engagement recently, I ate at the Riverview Diner on River Road in North Bergen NJ, which looks across the river to NYC. It was night time so the view was quite pretty, and I hadn’t had french fries with brown gravy in the longest time! YUM! It was a welcome stop on my trip!

    Another happy diner memory comes from the years I lived in suburban Philly, when we used to make late night visits to Minella’s Diner (in Wayne) after an evening of dancing. Too much fun!

    ~Monica

  22. Thanks for the info, Shari! (I don’t know why i didn’t think to check wikipedia myself – wikipedia knows EVERYTHING.)

    I should note, though, that now that I know that ‘american cheese’ is just a marketing ploy to sell ‘processed cheese like product’, that my respect for all americans, and for Adam in particular, has gone down a notch or two. Way to name one of the world’s crappiest/most artificial foods after your country. Stand proud!

  23. Hey AG,

    I haven’t been everywhere, but I like to think of myself as a budding world traveler. And of all the places I have been, I’ve never seen another diner except right here in the USA. I’m curious if other people have seen diners in other countries … and no, Cancun doesn’t count.

  24. I loved the commentary and it has convinced me that the next restaurant I open will serve authentic diner food! The South has precious few of them here, so I think my diner will be a hit with the southerners. I have mentioned my ideas to several local souterhners here in So. Georgia, and their began to drool and asked how soon will we be open! Thanks for the encouragement!

  25. Hey Adam,

    I’m also from Oceanside, and I thought I would let you know that the East Bay Diner has been knocked down and is gone forever. A CVS will open on the lot.

  26. I am sad to say that where I live, Diners are Few and Far Between….

    However, if you ever are in the Des Moines Metro Area, ask for the Drake Diner. OMG, they have the BEST hamburgers in existence… seriously.

    -Fuddruckers is a close Second, followed by Red Robin at a distant third-

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