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What Defines a "Diner" (Eatery)?


liuzhou

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Staff note: This discussion was split from the The Diners in Your Life topic, to maintain focus.

 

That topic title confused me. For me and most people outside the USA, I expect, a diner is a person who dines i.e all of us!

 

I only have a vague notion of what actually defines an American diner; anyone care to elucidate? I know the etymology, but that doesn't really help.

...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

A terrible thing is ignorance, the source of endless human woes, spreading a mist over facts, obscuring truth, and casting a gloom upon the individual life. - Lucian of Samosata (born 120, died after 180 CE)

 

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1 hour ago, liuzhou said:

That topic title confused me. For me and most people outside the USA, I expect, a diner is a person who dines i.e all of us!

 

I only have a vague notion of what actually defines an American diner; anyone care to elucidate? I know the etymology, but that doesn't really help.

 

Well it helps to be Greek but Greek people I know regard this as an egregious racial stereotype.

 

A diner is a real or imagined railroad dining car, with a huge menu, sticky seats, and impossibly bad food.

 

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5 minutes ago, JoNorvelleWalker said:

 

Well it helps to be Greek but Greek people I know regard this as an egregious racial stereotype.

 

A diner is a real or imagined railroad dining car, with a huge menu, sticky seats, and impossibly bad food.

 

 

I know the railroad car meaning came earlier than the current meaning, but long after the original meaning which is the one still used in Britain and elsewhere. The person dining.

 

...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

A terrible thing is ignorance, the source of endless human woes, spreading a mist over facts, obscuring truth, and casting a gloom upon the individual life. - Lucian of Samosata (born 120, died after 180 CE)

 

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4 hours ago, JoNorvelleWalker said:

 

Well it helps to be Greek but Greek people I know regard this as an egregious racial stereotype.

 

A diner is a real or imagined railroad dining car, with a huge menu, sticky seats, and impossibly bad food.

 

 

Typically built new nowadays, stainless steel sides at least in part, neon sign is a plus.

In house bakery that makes tons of cakes and pies and Greek stuff.

Gigantic menu (how do they have all that back there?), big portions.  Breakfast all day.

Counter service and tables.

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I really can't think of an equivalent in the UK. From your descriptions, I'm guessing they don't sell alcohol. Correct?

...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

A terrible thing is ignorance, the source of endless human woes, spreading a mist over facts, obscuring truth, and casting a gloom upon the individual life. - Lucian of Samosata (born 120, died after 180 CE)

 

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I did not try to define "diner" in my opening post but the link to Serious Eats I posted there gives a pretty good summary - though tad East Coast to me.  If anyone has ever watched Hallmark movies (no need to confess here) - the diner is the heart of every small town depicted. Even in this large metropolis I've often run into acquaintances in various locations. Often hearty breakfast all day, burgers/fries/shakes and bottomless coffee. I tend to have standard orders at my favorites: spinach and mushroom omlette w/ dry rye and Smuckers orange marmalade + their house salsa at Hot n' Tot, Cajun Burger and wonderfully crisp onion rings at Dale's.  At The Kettle depends if headed to or from LAX. Bit pricey but a beloved place.  http://thekettle.net/ Memorable venture there was in friend's husband's limo (he owned the service - cut down  on his "driving while intoxicated") Champagne to and from w/ tons of coffee inside and some eggs and toast combo.

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4 hours ago, gfweb said:

From that list, I have been to the following (in many cases, just once): Vincentown Diner, Mastoris, Ponzio's, Ritz Diner, Americana Diner (which is no longer a diner), Golden Dawn, and New Prestige Diner. Because of driving around NJ for work, I get to hit North/Central/South. Vincentown Diner was on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives several years ago, their angle is that they use seasonal and locally farmed ingredients. Plus local micro brews!

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Most of mine don't do booze. Then again the downtown Burger King in a high rise tried beer - until the bike messengers figured it out. To me "diner" = coffee in a heavy mug so it stays hot while you engage in earth changing discussions and solve world problems.  And they don't give you a look when you ask for mayo or Ranch with your fries or rings ;) 

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Wait...they serve worms at Waffle House? You mean those aren't really hashbrowns?

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29 minutes ago, donk79 said:

Here's a can of worms that just occurred to me- is a Waffle House a diner?

That is why I included Norms and Dennys. Same feeling. And what about lunch counters - a thing of the past. But we talked about them once here. My sister worked the griddle at JJ Newberry. and I spent many a happy moment at a different one shsring fries and talking about "life" with teen girlfriends. The fries that define the experience for you.

Anthony Bourdain & Sean Brock at waffle house 

 

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20 hours ago, liuzhou said:

That topic title confused me. For me and most people outside the USA, I expect, a diner is a person who dines i.e all of us!

 

I only have a vague notion of what actually defines an American diner; anyone care to elucidate? I know the etymology, but that doesn't really help.

 

Diners originated from horse-drawn food carts catering to the working class at a time in America when restaurants catered to the wealthy (although I think working class bars often served food at the time; need to check Imbibe by David Wondrich for the timelines). Started in the northeast but can be found across the country. They morphed into a uniquely American form of sit-in dining and are embedded in the cultural DNA.

 

Diners were originally (generally, anyway) pre-fabricated and moved to the site. This defined the classic diner architecture. They were often added onto later. The Wikipedia article has some pictures and decent info. Also check out an article from the Smithsonian Magazine.

 

So characteristic features (not all have to be present) include

  • Metal wall construction, often with rounded corners and ceilings 
  • Dining counter with stools
  • Booths and possibly tables
  • Short-order cook often works in the open behind the counter.
  • Serve breakfast all day
  • Frequently open 24 hours so become a focus for night workers and partiers
  • Typical breakfasts: Eggs any style (except usually not poached!), bacon, sausage, hash browns, weak coffee with free refills, pancakes, waffles
  • Classic lunch/dinner: Soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, club sandwiches, chili, burgers, French fries, hot roast beef with mash, and of course pie.

I think the closest British equivalent would be a caff.

1024px-Wellsboro_Diner_interior.jpg

1280px-Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.thumb.jpg.f2b640ac834c5abf858633311ce69df2.jpg

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56 minutes ago, heidih said:

That is why I included Norms and Dennys. Same feeling. And what about lunch counters - a thing of the past. But we talked about them once here. My sister worked the griddle at JJ Newberry. and I spent many a happy moment at a different one shsring fries and talking about "life" with teen girlfriends. The fries that define the experience for you.

Anthony Bourdain & Sean Brock at waffle house 

 

Waffle House is not a diner. It is sui generis. 

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26 minutes ago, haresfur said:

 

Diners originated from horse-drawn food carts catering to the working class at a time in America when restaurants catered to the wealthy (although I think working class bars often served food at the time; need to check Imbibe by David Wondrich for the timelines). Started in the northeast but can be found across the country. They morphed into a uniquely American form of sit-in dining and are embedded in the cultural DNA.

 

Diners were originally (generally, anyway) pre-fabricated and moved to the site. This defined the classic diner architecture. They were often added onto later. The Wikipedia article has some pictures and decent info. Also check out an article from the Smithsonian Magazine.

 

So characteristic features (not all have to be present) include

  • Metal wall construction, often with rounded corners and ceilings 
  • Dining counter with stools
  • Booths and possibly tables
  • Short-order cook often works in the open behind the counter.
  • Serve breakfast all day
  • Frequently open 24 hours so become a focus for night workers and partiers
  • Typical breakfasts: Eggs any style (except usually not poached!), bacon, sausage, hash browns, weak coffee with free refills, pancakes, waffles
  • Classic lunch/dinner: Soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, club sandwiches, chili, burgers, French fries, hot roast beef with mash, and of course pie.

I think the closest British equivalent would be a caff.

1024px-Wellsboro_Diner_interior.jpg

1280px-Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.thumb.jpg.f2b640ac834c5abf858633311ce69df2.jpg

The Hopper art is a coffee shop not a diner. 

 

I don't think that wiki thing gets it right. Horse drawn carts have nothing to do with diners. 

 

"Weak coffee" oh really?

 

"Originally prefab" oh really? Maybe later when there was a shortage of railroad cars. 

 

.....

 

Edited by gfweb (log)
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1 minute ago, heidih said:

And just to bust it open mre -  Howard Jihnsons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Johnson's  where Jacques Pepin had a hand in https://firstwefeast.com/eat/2015/08/jacques-pepin-career-changing-dishes

 

Thank you for ripping open my childhood culinary scars.  Not even the most horrid diner in New Jersey would serve melted ice cream to helpless little children.  Howard Johnson's was a thing and may Pepin be forgiven in the next life.  Just, please, not in this one.

 

No one here would ever, ever confuse Howard Johnson's with a diner.  (Though their fried clams were OK if you could chew them.)

 

 

 

Cooking is cool.  And kitchen gear is even cooler.  -- Chad Ward

Whatever you crave, there's a dumpling for you. -- Hsiao-Ching Chou

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1 hour ago, haresfur said:

 

Diners originated from horse-drawn food carts catering to the working class at a time in America when restaurants catered to the wealthy (although I think working class bars often served food at the time; need to check Imbibe by David Wondrich for the timelines). Started in the northeast but can be found across the country. They morphed into a uniquely American form of sit-in dining and are embedded in the cultural DNA.

 

Diners were originally (generally, anyway) pre-fabricated and moved to the site. This defined the classic diner architecture. They were often added onto later. The Wikipedia article has some pictures and decent info. Also check out an article from the Smithsonian Magazine.

 

So characteristic features (not all have to be present) include

  • Metal wall construction, often with rounded corners and ceilings 
  • Dining counter with stools
  • Booths and possibly tables
  • Short-order cook often works in the open behind the counter.
  • Serve breakfast all day
  • Frequently open 24 hours so become a focus for night workers and partiers
  • Typical breakfasts: Eggs any style (except usually not poached!), bacon, sausage, hash browns, weak coffee with free refills, pancakes, waffles
  • Classic lunch/dinner: Soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, club sandwiches, chili, burgers, French fries, hot roast beef with mash, and of course pie.

I think the closest British equivalent would be a caff.

1024px-Wellsboro_Diner_interior.jpg

1280px-Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942.thumb.jpg.f2b640ac834c5abf858633311ce69df2.jpg

 

Sorry, but hat does not accord with the linguistic evidence. The word 'diner' on its own is first recorded in writing in 1815 as "One who dines; a dinner-guest' in the English poet, Leigh Hunt's poem 'The Feast of the Poets'. This the meaning still prevalent in the UK and other English speaking countries outside North America. There was a slightly old form 'a diner-out' recorded in 1807 again in England.

The next meaning arrives in 1890 in the USA, meaning 'A railway dining car'.

Then, again in the USA, as a 'A restaurant, orig. and still occasionally one built to resemble a railway dining-car.

 

In 1865 the New Statesman magazine carried an article stating 

 

Quote

The first ‘diners’ were old Pullman dining-cars sold off by railway companies and I was amused to see that the newest ones, specially built, attempt to imitate the dining-cars.

 

No mention of horse-drawn food carts. Even the Wikipedia article offers no evidence for that.
 

There is a very good reason Wikipedia is banned as a source in most of academia.

The Smithsonian article is similarly short on evidence and unable to decide on whether they were lunch cars or diners.

 

From the descriptions and criteria here, I don't see 'diners'as being 'caffs' or 'cafés'. 'Transport cafés', perhaps, but you don't get them in cities. They are atypical.

 

...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

A terrible thing is ignorance, the source of endless human woes, spreading a mist over facts, obscuring truth, and casting a gloom upon the individual life. - Lucian of Samosata (born 120, died after 180 CE)

 

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Sorry about that. The one near me as a kid was a destination for families, freeway close, and  enjoyed.  Ice cram not a scar and I like ice cream. Different locations, and different experiences. The welcoming and always open atmosphere was similar to diners as were the servers.

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2 hours ago, gfweb said:

The Hopper art is a coffee shop not a diner. 

 

I don't think that wiki thing gets it right. Horse drawn carts have nothing to do with diners. 

 

"Weak coffee" oh really?

 

"Originally prefab" oh really? Maybe later when there was a shortage of railroad cars. 

 

.....

 

 

I haven't seen any evidence that American diners were originally railroad dining cars. Some apparently were repurposed horse-drawn streetcars. However, there clearly were companies who specialised in making diners for transport and installation on site. Did you read the Smithsonian article I linked above? "This 1956 photograph was taken during the short time that two Nite Owls sat cheek-by-jowl in Fall River, MA. Soon the old lunch wagon was carted away and demolished, replaced by the gleaming diner."

 

Of course the whole internet could have it wrong, "The concept of the diner began when Water 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."

 

Nite Owls

 

Weak coffee - yes really.

Edited by haresfur (log)
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46 minutes ago, liuzhou said:

 

Sorry, but hat does not accord with the linguistic evidence.

 

 

First you say you know the etymology then argue about the description of an American Diner, based on etymology. Don't think I can help you with that. But anyway hauling a rail car, horse cart, or streetcar onto a lot is as prefab as it gets. No I'm not going to dig up original sources but they were apparently manufacturing Lunch wagons by 1891. I don't think you can fix a cultural phenomenon to a point in time when it obviously is a concept that grew through the ages.

 

The comparison to British caffs is merely in terms of cultural setting. They are clearly not the same thing. But you did ask what defines a diner, not what the earliest representation was.

Edited by haresfur (log)

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2 hours ago, haresfur said:

First you say you know the etymology then argue about the description of an American Diner, based on etymology.

 

There is nothing contradictory about saying I know the etymology then sharing what I know about the etymology. I don't understand your comment, at all.

 

Yes I read both the Wikipedia and Smithsonian articles and neither of them give a source for their claims.

But I never argued in any way about constitutes a diner. I argued about the 'history' in those articles.

 

Edited by liuzhou (log)

...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

A terrible thing is ignorance, the source of endless human woes, spreading a mist over facts, obscuring truth, and casting a gloom upon the individual life. - Lucian of Samosata (born 120, died after 180 CE)

 

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2 hours ago, JoNorvelleWalker said:

 

Thank you for ripping open my childhood culinary scars.  Not even the most horrid diner in New Jersey would serve melted ice cream to helpless little children.  Howard Johnson's was a thing and may Pepin be forgiven in the next life.  Just, please, not in this one.

 

No one here would ever, ever confuse Howard Johnson's with a diner.  (Though their fried clams were OK if you could chew them.)

 

 

Although HoJo did have a somewhat more limited influence on American culture

 

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@gfweb  ref gives you a very good idea on what a diner looks like.

 

it has a counter , w round plastic ' stools '   and booths

 

for ref. I took these two pics out of the article

 

21853133-standard.thumb.jpg.519148d91d020c3443e55ce88b65871f.jpg

 

note the counter and the booths .  

 

21891990-standard.thumb.jpg.d064228a8b3c0f21f90edba880ff34b0.jpg

 

note the refrigerated space behind the server :  a must :  home made pie , cakes etc 

 

they also put a cake or two right in front of you , so you don't miss out.  cut right in front of you !

 

note the Club Sandwich , a must on any Diner menu.

 

my favorite from some time ago : Agawam    rt 1 north of BOS.

 

https://www.theagawamdiner.com

 

home made soup .  ( bowl , never a Cup )   you get a packet or two of Saltines.  never bread .

 

if there is ' crusty bread ' @ your Diner , its putting on Airs !

 

Club Sandwich ( turkey )    they roasted their own turkeys 

 

Pie ( a la mode )      was a standard meal for me.   I used to explore N of BOS some time ago0

 

1976 +++ ?  and discovered this Diner.  got there by chance late lunch hour.

 

2 State Trooper cars parked there , and one local Police .  a good sign.

 

and they had GrapeNut ' pudding or custard '  made right there.

 

their Pot Roast was superb.  green beans came out of a can.  a large can.

 

the two pics from the article might have been taken at the Agawam.

 

and then oil BOS  :

 

https://www.southstreetdiner.com

 

also called the Blue Diner.  same architecture , some fancier  food.

 

then in San Francisco :  Fog City

 

https://www.southstreetdiner.com

 

Diner on WestCost  steroids .   I have not been there for quite some time.

 

mashed potatoes were made there from real potatoes 

 

fantastic meatloaf ( notched up a bit ) 

 

 

 

 

Edited by rotuts (log)
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