Ann Redding, co-owner of New York City’s Thai Diner, was thrilled the day she saw an old man plop down at the counter with a newspaper. “I was like, It’s official, we’re a diner!” she says. Thai Diner mashes up diner eating with Thai food, serving traditional dishes like tom yum soup next to fries smothered in massaman curry. “We’re not doing anything really groundbreaking here,” she says. “We’re just taking the cuisine and my heritage, and just applying it to that model that seems to have worked for so long.”
There is probably no such thing as a place for everyone. But the diner has been considered a model of culinary democratization in the American public consciousness since its earliest days as a horse-drawn food cart selling sandwiches and coffee. At the prototypical American diner, the story goes, workers and students and the unemployed could all rub shoulders with one another, as long as they had a few cents for a meal. Diners have become synonymous with these other images — the working class, the small-town community center, a place for “real” Americans free of frills and ostentation, and most of all, a place for “everyone.” For politicians and celebrities, or anyone looking to (as New York Gov. Kathy Hochul tweeted last year) “meet the most interesting people” over eggs and iced tea, this is what is being evoked. Such that it doesn’t matter whether diners, in their current state, are actually those things.
Restaurant owners — like Redding of Thai Diner, Samuel Yoo of NYC’s Chinatown-influenced Golden Diner, and Sofia Baltopoulos of the Tasty vegan diner in Philadelphia — are beginning to expand the definition of what a diner can be. But the survival of diners has long depended on their association with this down-home, ordinary imagery, where folks from different walks of life can put aside their differences and find common ground over sandwich platters. Can there ever really be a place where “everyone” is welcome? How much of the diner is a myth?
The history of the diner begins in the 1870s with the lunch wagon, a slightly beefed-up version of a pushcart vendor. They first appeared in Rhode Island, near hubs of late-night activity, to feed revelers, laborers, and newspaper workers. And because they were not formal restaurants, men of lesser means were as welcome as anyone else. For most working men, eating at a restaurant would be out of the question, as they could potentially afford only “a tankard of drink or small cut of buttered bread,” writes Michael Karl Witzel in The American Diner. “Besides, with your clothes soiled from a day’s hard labor... sitting down to dine at a fine city hotel would be a little embarrassing.” Also, restaurants may not have been open during the late night or early morning hours when you really needed a bite. The “night lunch” wagon, in contrast, provided coffee, sandwiches, and pie at nearly all hours.
Like clockwork, writers began to romanticize the working-class lunch wagon. In 1896, the Boston Morning Journal described a local lunch wagon as a place where “all classes of men rub elbows within. Fashionable gentlemen in dress suits order sardine sandwiches and chocolate with as much eagerness as the homeless itinerant calls for a dog with a slap of mustard.” Richard Gutman, author of a series of books on American diners, recounts a newspaper story from 1932 in which a reporter observed the crowd at a diner, everyone from milkmen to actors to debutantes to teamsters. There were caveats, of course — Gutman notes there were few women eating in diners in their early days, and certainly these spaces would have been at least de facto segregated — but “there’s a tremendous history of everyone going there,” he says.
By the 1930s, the diner as we know it had physically taken shape. The mobile lunch wagons had ditched their wheels, setting up their counters and barstools permanently where most of their working-class clientele would find them. But after World War II, diners began to more closely resemble the family-friendly establishments we think of today — and they hit their stride. In the late 1950s, there were over 5,000 diners in America, and manufacturing of the modular, stainless steel structures boomed. “As those patrons became more affluent after World War II and those upwardly mobile working-class families began to enjoy some discretionary income, eating out became a leisure pursuit, and the people who owned diners and people who manufactured diners realized that there was a potential market just awaiting them among their own customer base,” says Andrew Hurley, a professor specializing urban history at University of Missouri-St. Louis.
So where “everyone” once meant any man with a nickel could eat at a working-class space, now it meant the working class was allowed to enter a middle-class space. As Hurley writes in his 1997 paper “From Hash House to Family Restaurant: The Transformation of the Diner and Post-World War II Consumer Culture,” diners began to add booths so families could eat together instead of being spread out at the counter. They moved the grills to the back of the kitchen so respectable patrons didn’t have to watch their food being made. And diners began to move from urban centers of manufacturing to the suburbs. “They straddled blue-collar work and white-collar domesticity,” writes Hurley, in an attempt to cater to the widest possible clientele.
Except it wasn’t all that wide. The diner developed a tense relationship with its working-class origins. Those origins were precisely why so many people frequented them — though they were not open to “everyone,” they were more welcoming than your average tearoom or hotel restaurant. But to ensure that middle-class white families felt welcome, they became less hospitable to people who might offend the customers they were trying to court. “While diner owners tended to tout their establishments as the epitome of democratic social interaction, the evidence indicates an uneasy integration of classes, sexes, and generations within diners,” according to Hurley. There was still rampant racial segregation in the days before (and, realistically, after) the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and “as diners migrated to the outskirts of cities, segregation did not require any formal policy of discrimination.” Black people and other people of color, people who identified as queer, hippies, and anyone who didn’t fit in in the suburbs would have been reluctant to enter.
As diners moved away from their working-class background, it ultimately doomed them, says Hurley: “Diners were eclipsed by chain restaurants who were able to offer a more reliable product and did not have that kind of working-class legacy that many of those families wanted to distance themselves from.”
By the 1970s, diners were on the outs, even though by that point they had begun to diversify. By then, most diners in New York were owned by Greek immigrants, and the ensuing decades saw Mexican, Ukrainian, Indian, and other immigrant workers buying diners from their white owners and normalizing putting things like quesadillas and gyros on the menu. This ensured that the food would appeal to the tastes of their current customers, not those of a generation before. It was also a way to lure customers in with more options, and thus away from fast-food joints that were sopping up business.
At the same time that more immigrants began running diners, some customers began to regard them with a more nostalgic eye, as those who grew up in the 1940s and ’50s looked at their childhoods through rosier glasses — a vision wrapped up in a fantasy of stability and prosperity of that era. “As diners began to disappear from the landscape, some folks that had grown up with them and for whom they represented a link to their past began to mourn that loss,” says Hurley. “And so they became objects of art, they became objects of commemoration and preservation, and kind of emblems in movies for a bygone era.” Grease and Happy Days and, well, Diner all take place around the establishment, where (white) relationship dramas and (white) life stories are worked out over fries and shakes.
Diners then realized what they had. “The diner industry sought to capitalize on that and play up that nostalgic angle,” says Hurley. Aesthetic choices that began as purely functional — the booths, the pie displays, the thick white coffee mugs — now were applied as shorthand for the classic diner form. Burgers and omelets, menu items that could once be whipped up quickly, became a tradition. Maybe the waitress’s uniforms were made a little more retro, or some more chrome and neon were thrown up, or the jukebox was stocked with more oldies. Emblematic of the trend is the chain Ruby’s Diner in California; opened in 1982, it looks like a cartoon fantasy of the 1950s. And just as the fashionable gentlemen went to lunch carts to check out the scene in the early 1900s, so did customers begin going to diners for an experience as much as a meal.
Diners are so connected to a nostalgic idea of America that in the years following the 9/11 attacks, diners apparently became more popular. “The attacks shocked folks into an introspective search for the simpler things, feel-good things like family, a sense of community and a place in their lives of constancy and familiarity where they feel comfortable striking up a conversation with a total stranger,” Richard Kubach, director emeritus of the National Restaurant Association, told Newsday. This is not to say a healthy cross section of the populace doesn’t enjoy a good soup and sandwich special in an unfussy setting. But rather than being an actual microcosm of an all-American community, diners instead began to represent an idea of that community. Sitting at a booth, ordering corned beef hash and a black coffee, and watching the bustle of the kitchen and the homely surroundings evoked a romance of the working-class, hardscrabble, everyday history of the diner. And specifically, it evoked something quintessentially American: a story of unity and opportunity, but also humbleness that America loves to tell about itself.
“This idea that the diner was a place for everyone, that the diner was a democratic space, the diner as a site of harmonious social relationships — that was something that [diners] propagated in publicity,” says Hurley. It was in their interest to present this image of comfort and sentimentality to the public. Fast food may have been cheaper, and fine dining may have been better, but diners were about community. “That didn’t describe the reality, where the diner — after the civil rights legislation, becoming racially integrated, despite attracting families that included women and children, in addition to the men, it remained a place where there were levels of discomfort, sometimes palpable,” says Hurley. “So that notion of the diner as a democratic, trouble-free space… that was never realized.”
Diners did manage to convince some people, though — namely, politicians and the media who cover them. In 1976, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter visited the Chat and Chew diner across the street from the Western Electric plant in Tonawanda, New York. The New York Times reported that he spoke to the soon-to-close plant workers about unemployment and inflation, and his message was well received. It’s unclear whether that was the first time a politician campaigned in a diner, but nevertheless, his choice of restaurant made sense; presumably, workers frequented a diner across the street from their workplace. Since then, diner appearances have become part of America’s political atmosphere, both for politicians and reporters. Diners “play a heavily symbolic role, functioning as the stage media outlets use to suggest some kind of fundamental Americanness,” according to Doug Mack reporting for the Counter.
The strategy for a politician appearing in a diner is twofold. First, both politicians and journalists are under the assumption they will find “real” Americans at diners. And second, by eating there, a patina of realness will rub off on them. “While evaluating a bunch of power-seeking performers based on their authenticity seems paradoxical, the value [voters] place on authenticity is a shorthand for a core democratic concern: whether a candidate is saying what they actually believe, and whether their values are the same as our own,” wrote Meghan McCarron for Eater, regarding politicians eating at a state fair, a similarly “real” place to be seen. “By eating in a relatable way, candidates don’t seek to convey their own humanity so much as they hope to embody the values of a Real American.”
The Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, has been operating almost without pause since 1922, and though it has been opened three more locations, the original is still a modest building standing where the original lunch cart used to be. The redbrick exterior opens onto a narrow red counter lined with crowded, swiveling stools. Specials are written on a whiteboard behind the counter, next to a neon clock that reads “HAVE A DINER DAY.” In the back are a few booths, and everything is accented in chrome. It still has things like liver and onions and a “hot hamburg sandwich” on the menu. Carol Lawrence, who became the Red Arrow’s fifth owner in 1987, says the diner indeed is a place for all, and has been for the past 100 years. “On one side, you’re going to have a doctor or a lawyer, and on the other side, you could have a garbage man or a homeless person,” she says. “You get all walks of life in the diner, and that has not changed at all.”
The Red Arrow Diner has also become a famous stop on the New Hampshire primary trail, to the point where the contact page on its website has a specific instructions for people interested in scheduling a political visit. The walls are chock-full of photos of political candidates who have visited, everyone from Hillary Clinton to Mitt Romney to Donald Trump rubbing elbows with locals, attempting to act like this is the kind of place they always go. The diner’s counter also features plaques of some famous guests — one notes where Rudy Guiliani sat when he visited.
For Lawrence, the conceit that “everyone is welcome” means the diner is an apolitical place, where your identity or values should not get in the way of enjoying a mug of bacon. “Red Arrow Diner is a nonpartisan company,” she says, which is of course good for the business of welcoming politicians. However, they did give the Newton Burger an honorary second name, the Trump Tower Burger, after Trump’s visit, and it appears to be the only item on the menu named after a politician (there is also an Adam Sandler burger). Lawrence laughs off the name. “I’m always asked, ‘Who do you support? Why do you have the Trump burger on your menu?’ Are you kidding? Oh, my gosh. That was ridiculous. We welcome everybody.”
The fact is, though, that depending on who is welcome, other people are made to feel unwelcome. For some, making it explicit that all, regardless of race or sexual orientation or gender, are welcome feels like an invitation to safety. For others, it feels like a threat. Seeing a Trump burger on the menu might make some customers feel uneasy, especially if there isn’t a corresponding Biden burger. Overly patriotic decor hearkening back to an imagined idyllic 1950s may put off people who likely would have faced discrimination during that time. “There are some diners that I have gone to where women don’t necessarily feel comfortable because they are working-class places and there aren’t any other women in there,” says Gutman. Saying “everyone is welcome” does not make it so, and even in the diner’s early days, the most downtrodden still needed a nickel to nurse a coffee.
Diners have historically represented things politicians are trying to tap into — the working class, the small-town community center, an “everyday”-ness — such that it doesn’t matter whether diners currently are those things. And they are not. At the On Parade Diner where Hochul ordered her eggs and iced tea, two eggs with bacon costs $12.95. A cheeseburger is $11.50, and you can add $4.50 to make it deluxe. A plain coffee is $3.15. These are middle-class prices, which makes sense; On Parade is located in Woodbury, a hamlet that is 77 percent white, where the median household income is $180,104. As journalist David Weigel told Mack in his piece for the Counter, “You’re already announcing your participation in an economic strata if you can afford to eat out at all,” and the political focus on diners excludes everyone who would not be present in a place like Woodbury, Nassau County — people of color, working-class people, poor people, immigrants, and more.
A new class of diners has been attempting to at least expand upon who is represented and welcome, whether that means focusing on different dietary needs, cuisines, or marginalized communities. Golden Diner serves diner fare influenced by its Chinatown neighborhood. Phoenicia Diner focuses on using ingredients from local farms to support the local community.
Sofia Baltopoulos, co-owner of the Tasty, grew up with diners in the northeast and always thought of them as “a real restaurant for the working folks.” When an opportunity came to buy and renovate one that closed in Philly, and give it a vegan menu, she and business partner Kate Hiltz jumped at the opportunity. “Our goal was always to be a neighborhood spot where everyone felt comfortable coming in for a meal,” she says, but also “to be a spot that is unapologetic about our ethics and morals.”
For her, being a space where “all are welcome” means being proactively welcoming to those who may not have anywhere else to go. “There are so many folks in this city who do not feel welcome in many places, and we strive to create a safe place for them,” says Baltopoulos. They fly a trans flag in their window, have signs up advertising the local free fridge, and have their own community bookshelf. “We work hard to be an integral part of the community,” she says. “We run fundraisers, donate to community-based organizations, use our platform to spread information about rallies and events to fight for things we believe in.”
As author Michael Karl Witzel argues, “the true-blue, all-American, deluxe diner exists as a self-contained, ever-evolving microcosm of society and the community it serves.”
That chefs want to both re-create that experience and expand on it, embodying a wider definition of “community,” makes complete sense. “We still need that neighborhood spot where you can come and everyone has just decided to do their version of it,” says diner owner Ann Redding.
But if a diner is just a place where anyone is welcome to sit and have a simple, cheap meal, then I think of all the other places that could count as a diner, where politicians could go to find “regular” people. I think of the bodega near my apartment that serves tacos and tortas, where the deliveristas hang out at a few card tables between orders. I think of the truck stops serving Punjabi food across California. I think of queer haven Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, where diners can add to the community tab to pay for a meal for someone else who may not be able to swing it. These places seem to embody the spirit of the original lunch carts as much as a suburban behemoth with $12 disco fries. But to visit these places would look like courting a niche demographic, rather than checking in with the lives of real Americans.
Maybe the diner is a microcosm of America. It holds on to a story about itself that has never really been true, and at any given moment it’s difficult to tell whether it actually believes that story or whether that’s what it’s trying to sell you. Omelets and coffee in a bustling dining room served by a sassy waitress, surrounded by your neighbors, is a wonderful experience, a story you want to keep going back to. But it’s not the only story to tell.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter