The History Of The Diner: How The Greasy Spoon Became An Iconic American Institution



Frequently associated with round-the-clock service, massive menus, relatively cheap prices and oldies tunes playing in the background, diners are an iconic staple of American culture.

In the 1920s through 1940s, diners were often built small and narrow to fit into a rail car or truck to be delivered to a restaurant site. Often referred to as “greasy spoons,” diners’ most common fare has long included hamburgers and French fries, club sandwiches, coffee, milkshakes and pies, although many modern diners—especially those in New York City—have much more expansive menus. For example, Astoria’s Neptune Diner boasts an enormous menu that features everything from Greek fare—which is appropriate, considering its location in the city’s most heavily Greek-populated community—to tacos, Romanian steak and shish kebobs.

Many diners are open 24 hours and boast full houses in cities that have an active nightlife—the eateries are popular for college students following a trip to the bar—or night-shift workers. Their late-night aura is captured perfectly in Edward Hopper’s haunting painting “Nighthawks,” but diners are also viewed—especially in popular culture—as a communal experience where communities gather (think of The Peach Pit on the TV show Beverly Hills 90210 or the Double R in Twin Peaks).

15-Jackson_pan_800A majority of classic American diners have a similar appearance: an exterior layer of stainless-steel siding, neon signs, jukeboxes filled with golden oldies, booths for larger groups and bar stools for solitary patrons.

Although the diner is often thought of as a quintessentially American institution, the eateries have primarily come to be operated by immigrants, especially in the Northeast, where diners are frequently run by Greek-Americans.

Queens boasts a large number of diners, including the Esquire Diner, Neptune Diner, Goodfellas Diner and Ozone Park Diner.

Jackson Hole owner Jim Meskouris, 68, said that another element of diners that makes them historically unique is that they are frequently individual buildings with a private parking lot, making it easy for drivers to pull off a highway and grab a bite to eat. But he added that while diners remain popular, the culture is changing.

“The culture of the diner is actually disappearing,” he said, adding that many of the eateries are no longer open 24 hours and that costs and regulations have gone up. “We’re hanging in there, we make a living. A lot of our places, we can’t even renovate them anymore.”

Another challenge for the modern diner is the rising cost of food. Meskouris said that diners have historically been inexpensive and owners are reluctant to raise their prices.

“Food costs have gone through the roof in the last four or five years,” he said. “Our food costs quadrupled.”

Also, Meskouris said that diner culture has changed in that many of the eateries are no longer the typical restaurants with massive menus that offer a number of choices, but rather sites that focus on specialty items. For example, Jackson Hole emphasizes its high-end, seven-ounce burgers on a beefy brioche bun.

One aspect of diners that hasn’t changed is the customer culture, he said.

“Everybody says hello; everybody feels comfortable,” he said, adding that a diner is a place where patrons feel “free to be themselves.” “We make room for everybody. Diners are noisy. That’s the way it is. People talk loud; they’re on their phones. Everybody kind of has their guard down.”

And another reason why diners still draw large numbers of patrons, Meskouris said, is that they  provide a window into the past.

“It’s nostalgic,” he said. “[Customers] grew up with that older look.”

Nick Moukas, whose family has owned the Jahn’s Diner franchise—which began in 1897—for 47 years, said that diners have continued to remain relevant due to their wide variety of menu items.

“It’s one-stop shopping,” he said. “You can come in at any time and get whatever you want. [Customers] enjoy the fact that they can go to one place and get whatever they want with fast service and nice-size portions. Breakfast has always been extremely popular in diners—which are [also] always known for their burgers.”

In popular culture, there have been a number of iconic diner sequences in movies and TV shows. In many films, the diner acts as a nostalgic representative of America’s past. Several lauded directors—such as Quentin Tarantino (whose Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs utilize diners), Martin Scorsese (who has featured diner sequences in Goodfellas and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and David Lynch (whose Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive have included memorable diner scenes)—frequently use the eating establishments as backdrops.

Among the numerous other films and TV shows to use diners in key sequences are The Sopranos, Five Easy Pieces, American Graffiti, Back to the Future, This Is Spinal Tap, The Big Lebowski, Pineapple Express, Zodiac, Groundhog Day, the recent Baby Driver and, not surprisingly, Diner.

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