The diner as American icon

Foreigners are fascinated by American diners, seeing them as icons of American culture.  So says the BBCg:

Sitting in a diner, on the inside looking outside.

This is a quintessential American experience. Add a booth, a Formica counter and a cup of joe – as diner patrons call their coffee.

Themed restaurants and burger chains from Mumbai to Manchester aim to replicate this chrome-flashed experience, and diner fare such as home fries and fluffy pancakes are now global fast food staples.

So why are these kerbside kitchens a landmark of US culture?

The first such establishment opened in 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island – a “night lunch wagon” to serve those who worked and played long after the restaurants had shut at 20:00.

Its mix of open-all-hours eating and cheap, homemade food proved a hit, and the formula has been repeated ever since.

Today the diner occupies a place in the American heartland. The closest British approximation is not a retro-chic replica diner where hip patrons eat gourmet burgers, but the local pub.

Just as dignitaries visiting the UK and Ireland are taken for a pint and a photo call, no US election campaign is complete without a stop at a diner to emphasise the candidate’s everyman or everywoman credentials.

On the campaign trail in a diner (clockwise from left): George W Bush, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Al Gore Common touch: The diner is now a compulsory stop on the campaign trail

“The thing about this democratic counter is that anyone can go in and sit down. It can be a professor, it can be a worker,” says Richard Gutman, author of American Diner Then and Now.

“A friend of mine in Pennsylvania ate in a diner and he’s in the middle of two guys. One is the chief of police and the other is just some character. The policeman looks over and says, ‘Didn’t I arrest you last year?’ and the guy says, ‘Yes you did – pass the ketchup.’”

via BBC News – Why the diner is the ultimate symbol of America.

That diners are democratic is striking in countries with a rigid class system!  The article goes on to survey the figure of the diner in American art (Edward Hopper) and movies (Pulp Fiction).   I would say that other countries would do well to imitate our diners, as opposed to our fast food joints.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    “Cup of joe”? Really? Not that having a little Benny Goodman on the jukebox would be a bad thing, but really “joe”?

    We have two other icons of American culture, though the diner bridges the gap between urban and rural: 1) the grain elevator, and 2) the barn (especially in classic red). While strictly small-town and rural, they are part of who many Americans think they are, or at least where they came from.

  • SKPeterson

    “Cup of joe”? Really? Not that having a little Benny Goodman on the jukebox would be a bad thing, but really “joe”?

    We have two other icons of American culture, though the diner bridges the gap between urban and rural: 1) the grain elevator, and 2) the barn (especially in classic red). While strictly small-town and rural, they are part of who many Americans think they are, or at least where they came from.

  • Tom Hering

    The diner leads us to two other American icons, Alka-Seltzer (“plop, plop, fizz, fizz”) and pinker-than-pink Pepto-Bismol. As well as to that staple of police dramas, the health inspector. (PROPRIETOR: I didn’t see nothin’. DETECTIVE: Maybe a visit from the health inspector would refresh your memory.)

  • Tom Hering

    The diner leads us to two other American icons, Alka-Seltzer (“plop, plop, fizz, fizz”) and pinker-than-pink Pepto-Bismol. As well as to that staple of police dramas, the health inspector. (PROPRIETOR: I didn’t see nothin’. DETECTIVE: Maybe a visit from the health inspector would refresh your memory.)

  • Joe

    I love diners. Eating at the Michigan Street Diner (downtown Milwaukee) is pretty much a part of the job description for the litigators at my firm.

    If you like diners – you can check out Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and/or Feasting on Asphalt both on the Food Network.

  • Joe

    I love diners. Eating at the Michigan Street Diner (downtown Milwaukee) is pretty much a part of the job description for the litigators at my firm.

    If you like diners – you can check out Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and/or Feasting on Asphalt both on the Food Network.

  • Kirk

    We’ve got a great one down the street from my house in DC. They have the best chicken and waffles in town.

  • Kirk

    We’ve got a great one down the street from my house in DC. They have the best chicken and waffles in town.

  • Tom Hering

    Is that on the menu? Chicken ‘n’ waffles?

  • Tom Hering

    Is that on the menu? Chicken ‘n’ waffles?

  • DonS

    I remember a diner in Arlington, VA, on Columbia Pike, that we used to frequent as a young couple back in the ’80′s when we lived there. It was called “Bob & Edith’s”, and it was still there a couple of years ago when we went back, though it’s a lot bigger now. Loved that place! The coffee was definitely “joe”, and we called the waitress we usually had “Flo” (from the old “Alice” TV series) — a gum-smackin’ southerner with the big hair and some attitude. She introduced this Yankee to grits for the first time, which were an option to the home fries on the breakfast menu. “You never tried grits, honey? Well, I’ll bring you some, on the house — you just sit right there — you’re in for a treat!” And, I was.

  • DonS

    I remember a diner in Arlington, VA, on Columbia Pike, that we used to frequent as a young couple back in the ’80′s when we lived there. It was called “Bob & Edith’s”, and it was still there a couple of years ago when we went back, though it’s a lot bigger now. Loved that place! The coffee was definitely “joe”, and we called the waitress we usually had “Flo” (from the old “Alice” TV series) — a gum-smackin’ southerner with the big hair and some attitude. She introduced this Yankee to grits for the first time, which were an option to the home fries on the breakfast menu. “You never tried grits, honey? Well, I’ll bring you some, on the house — you just sit right there — you’re in for a treat!” And, I was.

  • http://literaryanalysis.wordpress.com John Ehrett

    There’s actually a chain of diners in Moscow that patterns itself after the traditional American model – they’re wildly popular and considered “exotic.”

  • http://literaryanalysis.wordpress.com John Ehrett

    There’s actually a chain of diners in Moscow that patterns itself after the traditional American model – they’re wildly popular and considered “exotic.”

  • Kirk

    @Tom

    Yes! It’s huge in DC. Surprisingly, there are few things better than fried chicken covered in maple syrup.

  • Kirk

    @Tom

    Yes! It’s huge in DC. Surprisingly, there are few things better than fried chicken covered in maple syrup.

  • Tom Hering

    Kirk, please tell me they have Belgian Chicken ‘n’ Waffles, where the grease from the chicken mixes with the fruit and the melting ice cream!

  • Tom Hering

    Kirk, please tell me they have Belgian Chicken ‘n’ Waffles, where the grease from the chicken mixes with the fruit and the melting ice cream!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    SKP, sorry, but the grain elevator is a regional symbol, one that transcends the 49th parallel. It is the symbol of that stretch of land from the Gulf of Mexico to the Boreal Forest, and from the Rockies to
    Appalachia. It is a symbol of the Prairies in the most liberal application of that term.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    SKP, sorry, but the grain elevator is a regional symbol, one that transcends the 49th parallel. It is the symbol of that stretch of land from the Gulf of Mexico to the Boreal Forest, and from the Rockies to
    Appalachia. It is a symbol of the Prairies in the most liberal application of that term.

  • bruce Gee

    In tune with the real thinking about these joints, the boys locally refer to them as “Squat and Gobbles.”

    Bruce

  • bruce Gee

    In tune with the real thinking about these joints, the boys locally refer to them as “Squat and Gobbles.”

    Bruce


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X