Here’s a story about the hidden power of the press. In mid-19th-century Providence, a young man named Walter Scott, who’d been peddling newspapers, fruit, and homemade candy on the street since he was 11, realized that the folks who worked all night to put out the city’s three newspapers needed food. Starting small, he eventually modified a bantam freight wagon so that he could sit inside it, with a roof over his head and windows facing both the sidewalk and the street. One night in 1872, with his trusty horse, Patient Dick, in the traces, he pulled up in front of the Providence Journal, leaned out the window and sold a sandwich (or perhaps a cup of coffee, or a hard-boiled egg). Thus began the history of the American diner.
At least that’s what Richard Gutman thinks, and he should know. Gutman is the world’s foremost authority on diners, and he’s been researching and writing about them since 1970 when he was a Cornell University architecture student. While he was an undergraduate, a group of British design critics visited the campus and were struck by a building form around town they’d never seen before — the diner. As Gutman writes in his bible American Diner: Then and Now, “After a closer look, I guessed that neither had I.” (Icons can be that way.) Even though there had been four of them within walking distance of his childhood home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, he’d not really seen them, so much a part of the everyday built landscape were they. After 45 years of hard study, he’s become to diners “What Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees,” as smithsonian.com puts it. He’s consulted on Barry Levinson’s classic movie Diner, helps individuals and museums find and restore them, and has outfitted his own home in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, with stools, a marble countertop, and a menu board he salvaged from a Michigan diner.
Back in Providence, Walter Scott soon had competition, as other “night lunch wagons” set up around town, servicing all sorts of night owls after the restaurants closed. People liked the wagons’ informality, the good prices, the chance to gossip and trade news, and (as would remain a hallmark of diners) the pleasures of eating home-style comfort food, the kind you just won’t find at a national chain. The wagons became more elaborate, and the idea migrated to other cities, including bustling Worcester, Massachusetts, where in 1891 Charles H. Palmer patented a lunch wagon design for a horse-drawn vehicle with a “kitchen-apartment” at one end separated from a “dining-room space” with stools or chairs at the other and windows for walk- or drive-up customers. Inside, especially on cold nights, these wagons could hold 20 people standing. The model held for another 25 years, with higher-end versions sporting etched glass, beveled plate-glass mirrors, exuberant paint jobs, and elaborate tiled surfaces.
Their popularity proved to be the night lunch wagons’ downfall. Gutman reports that by 1912, nearly 50 of them were plying the streets of Providence, and they’d spread all over other New England cities as well. Authorities became grumpy about the late-night crowds, the peeling-paint condition of the aging fleet, and, especially, the competition the wagons were giving established restaurants by staying open through to morning, when they also added to street congestion. It wasn’t long until street bans were in place, leaving wagon drivers to scramble for small lots around town to plunk down their once-mobile businesses at permanent addresses, trading wheels for foundations.
Coincident with this change, many northern cities began replacing their horse-drawn trolleys with electric ones, leaving some enterprising souls to snatch up the discards on the cheap, throw in a coffee urn and a griddle, and sell them as a step up to the guys in the newly marooned lunch wagons. These retreads weren’t exactly glorious spaces, however, and it wasn’t long until manufacturers started to offer fresh, shiny, attractive “lunch cars,” replete with skylights, varnished wood, porcelain stools, shiny metal surfaces, and, crucially, the modern lengthwise counter, with seating on one side and cooking in the “back bar.”
Sometime around 1923, the manufacturers’ catalogs began referring to their products as “diners,” perhaps because these were now three-meal establishments. Driven by demand, they got bigger and bigger, eventuating the introduction of steel into their framework. Delivered by rail and road, their size was limited only by local conditions. (Gutman relays the unhappy experience of one truck driver who discovered too late that the bridge he’d been told could clear a 16-foot diner turned out to be 14½ feet wide, causing him to have to back his load four miles down the road.) They could be ordered with signage, pots, pans, plates, and silverware.
To experience a nearly unchanged diner from the 1920s, head to Casey’s in Natick, Massachusetts, famous for its natural-casing hot dogs, the kind that snap when you bite down. The burgers are swell too, and the sliding entry door, oak counter, and 10 stools have the softened edges that only time can provide. Like all good diners, Casey’s serves from its own time-tested menu, with friendly service, good prices, and the kind of overheard conversations that let you know you’re in an authentic social space. (A recent example, between two young men: “Yeah, once you start sharing real estate, and a bathroom, it’s all over.”)
The streamlined apotheosis of the diner came in the 1950s, with decorative stainless steel in quilted, diamond, sunburst, and fluted patterns, neon signage, bright tiles, and the rounded exterior profile that reflected the latest auto designs. They were an American Graffiti dream. As Gutman says, “These places announce themselves.”
At the Mill Pond Diner in Wareham, Massachusetts, which dates from this midcentury zenith, a customer named Eddie volunteers, without prompting, “Most of the people who come here are either dead or in a nursing home.” Nicole Le Blanc, the young waitress who serves up a fish-and-chips plate and a “Fat Boy” burger with just the right amount of sass (almost), concurs, saying that “her gang” of regulars is mostly men, with a few women, between the ages of 50 and 80.
But love of diners is not lost on the youth. Emi Ferrara, a 19-year-old student who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says that she’s “been going to the Deluxe Town Diner [in Watertown, Massachusetts] give or take my whole life.” Introduced to it by her parents, she has been joined by like-minded friends, who find the “food great, the prices reasonable, and the atmosphere super-friendly.”
“There’s a big slice of my generation that really appreciates good food,” she says. “Places like the Town have done a great job changing their menu with the times, adding funky things like eggplant fries, and a lot of us have become loyal fans.” Stop the presses! Walter Scott’s revolution lives on!