As I sit in my car in the crowded parking lot and wait for my friend Dan to arrive on this rainy spring evening, I have plenty of time to think. I haven’t seen Dan for months, even though we live less than an hour from each other. My mind then wanders to thinking about how life changes you. Once you move away, have kids, or, to a lesser extent, get married, you may not have an opportunity to spend time with friends as often—but that just makes these get-togethers more enjoyable.
One thing that’s stayed constant throughout all these years, though, is that, no matter the circumstance, we’ve always found a way to go to diners. It’s our thing.
We first started hitting diners while in college, as there was one within walking distance from campus and an even more popular one a few miles farther down the same road. After college, Dan, his brother Bob, and I would frequent the same diner after traveling across the state line to watch our favorite college basketball team back door their way to another win. And once Dan and I got into our thirties and forties and lived farther away from each other, we would (and still do) meet at various diners halfway between our homes.
The rain is now coming down harder, but it barely distracts me from a new question that’s racing through my mind as I stare at the neon-lit sign standing out like a beacon on this inclement night: What makes diners so appealing, anyway?
I’ve never really thought about this, despite the hundreds of hours I’ve spent traveling to them, eating at them, and having conversations at them. Yet I know I’m not alone. For many decades, countless hordes of Americans have tabbed diners as their favorite hangouts.
And, yes, I say Americans because there really is something quintessentially American about the diner experience. It’s why American movies (Diner) and music (Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”) have been dedicated to diners, and why prominent TV shows (such as Seinfeld and The Sopranos) have featured diners as a primary setting throughout their runs.
The diner, as it turns out, seems to be an ideal representation of America’s glorious past and innovative future, connecting generations in a melting pot where young and old, locals and road-weary travelers, can find comfort—virtually anywhere they go. And, just like America, there are various types of diners, each with its own unique story.
The classic diner
Moody’s Diner | Waldoboro, Maine
“A customer stopped in yesterday,” says Dan Beck, president and general manager of Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, Maine. “She was talking to my wife at our gift shop. She commented that she hadn’t been back to Maine for twenty-three years and said, ‘When I saw your diner, I almost cried. In a world where everything is changing, Moody’s has remained the same.’ This is why so many come back year after year. It’s like coming home, but it’s also like stepping back in time. Yes, we have computers and take credit cards, but our counters are the old, worn yellow Formica from the ‘40s and ‘50s. The booths are the same straight-backed booths from a time gone by. It’s a place of fond memories for many, and we offer simply great food with no frills.”
This is the type of nostalgia evoked at Moody’s, a ninety-year-old throwback diner that still uses original recipes passed down have featured diners as a primary setting throughout their runs. The diner, as it turns out, seems to be an ideal representation of America’s glorious past and innovative future, connecting generations in a melting pot where young the classic diner from Beck’s grandmother, including her lard-based take on donuts and piecrust. “People appreciate consistency, quality, reasonable prices, good service, great food, and a place that holds memories,” adds Beck. “This is Moody’s Diner.”
Any of the pies, whoopie pies, homemade hot turkey sandwich dinner, seafood platter, the “By-Thunder” burger, and chowder.
The all-night diner
24 Diner | Austin, Texas
One of the most appealing aspects of the diner experience is that many are open around the clock, like 24 Diner in Austin, Texas.
But according to Evelyn Sher, media director of 24 Diner’s ELM Restaurant Group, that may be one of the few things that reminds you of a traditional diner at this establishment. “As far as decor, we were inspired by the classic diners of the ’50s,” she says. “Only this is Austin—we blended a midcentury modern design with a big helping of Austin eclectic.” She also explains that patrons may be surprised by the food 24 Diner offers. “We offer local, farm-to-table and organic ingredients whenever possible and quality food prepared immaculately. Not many diners are helmed by chefs trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York or have a Master Sommelier among their ranks. But we do.”
The end result? The appeal of a diner with an upscale feel—any time of day or night. “Given our variety of offerings and hours of operation, 24 Diner really appeals to a wide audience,” Sher concludes. “including executives, CrossFitters, families, locals, tourists, and a late-night crew.”
Chicken & waffle, 24 hash, bacon avocado burger, chili cheese fries, meat loaf (featured on Food Network), M’s grilled cheese sandwich, and milk shakes.
The roadside diner
The Fremont Diner | Sonoma, California
If you’re driving through Napa Valley, California, and come up to a small, white, wooden building on the side of the road with a rust-covered pickup truck parked out front, stop in for some quality food.
The Fremont Diner, located in Sonoma, is a study of contrasts, with its understated exterior and general store-feel interior being home to unique, delicious diner foods. “We try to keep things simple and straightforward but interesting and thoughtful at the same time,” explains owner Chad Harris, who bought the neglected building in 2009 and converted it into the diner of his dreams. “People like dining here because we make locally and seasonally sourced comfort food and have well-sourced beers,” Harris adds. “They also like coming here because we have a friendly staff, we’re reasonably priced, we’re very family-friendly, kid friendly, and dog- friendly, and we have a great patio with views of the vineyards.”
Plus, you’ll find a skeleton in the passenger seat of the omnipresent pickup truck—which is perfectly appropriate because, from its stools out front and patio-covered picnic tables out back to its fresh ingredients and fabulous down-home comfort food, the Fremont Diner does the bare-bones diner experience right.
Hot pastrami, Nashville style chicken, oyster sandwich, chicken biscuit, and pecan pie.
The scenic diner
Ruth’s Diner | Salt Lake City, Utah
People stop at a diner for the food, but sometimes people stop for the scenery. Both are ample at iconic Ruth’s Diner, a local treasure in the foothills of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Opened in 1930, Ruth’s is as colorful as the local legend who founded the place. At first, the establishment was known as Ruth’s Hamburgers and had a downtown location. “However, Ruth purchased a Salt Lake Trolley car in 1949 and moved it up to historic Emigration Canyon,” explains current co-owner Erik Nelson, who purchased the diner with his wife, Tracy, in 2007. “That original dining car, with its arched birch wood ceilings, is still used daily.”
So what sets this diner apart, besides the food and the backstory, is that it comes with a view. “We have a unique setting in the mountains,” says Nelson. “During the summer months, our guests can enjoy eating on a beautiful, tree-covered patio with Emigration Creek running through the property. It seats up to two hundred guests, who can enjoy live music on the patio every night. And the Thursday night BBQ shouldn’t be missed!”
Ruth’s famous mile high biscuits and country gravy, Ruth’s meat loaf burger, Grandma Claire’s mac and cheese (featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives), pulled pork Benedict, pot roast, and Erik’s raspberry chicken.
I sit in my car and contemplate these examples for a little while. I soon realize that the magic of the diner experience is as simple as the diner concept itself: no matter where you are, you can find one of these local eateries, get welcomed in by its friendly staff, enjoy good food and good company—and feel like home.
But the time for reminiscing has ended. The rain is letting up, and the sunshine peeking through the clouds is reflecting off the front of the diner like a beacon. My friend has finally pulled into the parking lot, and I’m fairly certain that he’s as hungry as I am. It’s time to make more diner memories.