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Diners are an American culinary staple. What other place can you get pancakes, a martini, and a triple-decker sandwich? But, where does the word "diner" come from? And why do many diners look like old silver train cars?

On today's episode, we're breaking down the history of the diner. While many people associate them with the 1950s and 1960s, we're going all the way back to the 19th century to explore the real origins of this beloved culinary institution.

Food History is a show all about... well, the history of food. Join host Justin Dodd as he brings you the stories of how your favorite meals ended up on your plate.

Special thanks to Sarah Lohman for writing this script, check out her book here!
From the painting NightHawks to the sitcom  Seinfeld, New York City diners are an intrinsic

part of American pop culture.

If you live in the  U. S., you probably have a diner that’s special

to you: whether it's a 24-hour spot that you  drank coffee and ate French fries in as a teen,

or a mom-and-pop shop where your family went  for Sunday breakfast (where, if you’re like me,

you always ordered the exact same thing.)

But where did these restaurants made of

chrome and neon originate?

We’re going to  trace diner dining from their Lunch Wagon

ancestors to “We Are Happy to Serve You” take  out cups – and talk about how diner culture

might disappear. Hi, I’m Justin Dodd. Welcome to Food History.

Diners began as mobile food wagons that would

come out at night to serve simple meals to  workers on the third shift. They were literal

wagons—carts pulled by horses. Although street  food vendors have existed as long as cities have,

most had simple setups and sold only one kind of  food—pies and baked potatoes were popular choices,

no complaints here—–and they  operated during the day.

The first nighttime food wagon, as far as anyone  knows, was started by Walter Scott in Providence

back in 1872. Scott sold sandwiches, coffee,  and pies out of his repurposed, horse-drawn

wagon. Scott’s mini-restaurant on wheels was so  successful that he quit his day job as a printer.

Soon, many other New England entrepreneurs  mimicked Scott’s business model. These businesses

were called “Lunch Wagons.” They were essentially  late-19th century food trucks: they could pull up

to multiple businesses in a day or stay put at  one known location. The food was prepared inside

over simple stoves or stored in iceboxes and  served out a window to customers on the street.

Manufacturers opened up that specifically  built or retrofitted the wagons. They were

decorated with fancy lettering and murals and had  an overhang to keep customers dry or shaded in

inclement weather. In 1887, one entrepreneur added  inside seating.

The Lunch Wagons became “Rolling

Restaurants.” Which sounds like a lot of fun! And… very dangerous! This concept spread quickly with an assist

from the temperance movement.

If you  were a hungry night worker and all that

was open was a saloon, that’s where you’d  go. But lunch wagons provided a zero-proof

option for cheap coffee and a sandwich. Eventually these wagons started getting so popular

they extended their hours outside of the night  trade, which put these lightly taxed operations

in competition with normal restaurants for the  morning rush.

Faced with upset restaurateurs,

saloon owners, and people angry with the wagons  clogging up increasingly busy streets, cities that

had been perfectly fine with nighttime wagons  started clamping down on daytime operations. Wagon owners started parking on private property  where they could set their hours without incurring

the wrath of local municipalities. Now  with more-or-less permanent locations,

these night lunch “wagons” started turning into  lunch “cars.” Then in the 1920s they’d become

known as dining cars, which was eventually  shortened to, drum roll please, diners.

The seating was often a simple counter with  stools, designed so that customers didn’t stay

too long. One manufacturer, Jerry O’Mahony, was  based in New Jersey and shipped cars to clients

all over the country. O’Mahony’s dining cars  were pretty much fully stationary.

In this way,

he’s sometimes credited with inventing the  “diner”—a prefabbed restaurant inspired

by railroad cars. Other companies would  sometimes actually outfit decommissioned

railroad cars with a kitchen and indoor seating. O’Mahony was one of the first diner manufacturers

in New Jersey, but not the last.

Through the  20th century, New Jersey was the leading maker

of diners; about 95 percent of all prefab diners  were built in the state. Diners were shipped

worldwide. They could even be sent back to the  factories for updates and repairs.

But many of

these buildings stayed local. To this day, New  Jersey is known as the Diner Capital of the World,

with more than 500 active diners in the state. But a spot called Casey’s, in Natick,

Massachusetts, is America’s oldest continually  operating diner.

It started out as a lunch wagon

in the 1890s. The current structure was built in  1922 by the Wooster Lunch Car Company. It’s been

family owned for four generations, and still  serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as

a tempting assortment of pies.

Honestly, though,  any pie is going to tempt me. Buttery crust and

delicious fillings? Oh yeah baby.

I’m getting  closer everyday to becoming a cartoon bear. While lunch wagons started in the cities, diners  thrived in the suburbs. Post World War II, many

white Americans left cities to move to suburbs in  places like Long Island.

Diners literally followed

them. Especially for white men that had served  in the military, government programs made buying

a home accessible. The idealized “American Dream”  made a white picket fence and a yard the ideal.


the same time, “redlining”—housing policies that  reinforced segregation—as well as other financial

embargoes placed against people of color, forced  many families to stay in urban neighborhoods. Diners were rarely an exception to this divided  norm, whether due to Jim Crow laws or de facto

segregation that arose from geographical and  socioeconomic differences. Think of the diner’s

cousin, the lunch counter, and the role sit-ins  at them played in the civil rights movement.

What diners *were* able to bridge, to  an extent, was a socioeconomic divide   *within* racially segregated communities. They  often occupied a geographic fringe between the

city and the suburbs, catering to people  in both spaces. The fact that they could

cater to factory workers and office professionals,  families and solo diners alike, speaks to their

wide-ranging appeal.

Their prevailing  racial segregation, though, hints towards

the limitations of food as a uniting force. Since diners were designed as portable structures,

the dining cars were loaded onto trucks and  shipped to the ‘burbs. But diners had to

evolve once they arrived.

They no longer served  just rough and tumble male overnight workers;

they needed to fit into the family-oriented model  of post-War America. The diner’s interiors were

redesigned to match the era’s conception of a  chic, modern home, including “Formica countertops,

porcelain tiles, leather booths, wood  paneling and terrazzo floors,” as Joan

Russel wrote for Paste magazine. These were  the same materials that appeared in many

of the new bungalows of the suburban middle  class.

The old counters and stools remained,

but booths and tables were added for group  seating, appealing to families. Many diners

still remained open 24 hours a day, though,  to serve their original clientele. In time,

these spaces became a refuge for teenagers, a  gathering place for those too young to go to

bars and too heavily involved in high school  theater to be invited to parties.

Just me? The diners of the 1950s were made from silvery,  sleek modern metal railroad cars. Some were

built as freestanding buildings, but they  still had shiny stainless-steel exteriors,

neon signs and a space-age appearance.

But  if we’re getting technical, these would

properly be called “coffee shops.” The term diner  technically referred to factory-built, prefabbed

restaurants from dining cars that were shipped to  a location. In modern America, of course, coffee

shop has taken on a different meaning—generally  applying to something like a Starbucks—and

diner has become the catch-all name for these  family-owned, often round-the-clock restaurants. The American Northeast still has the highest  concentration of traditional diners in the

country, with 2,000 spread out over New  England.

But it nearly wasn’t to be—in the

1960s the increasing spread of chain restaurants  led to a diner decline. So, what saved it? Well,

if you’ve ever lived in the New York City  area, you might remember that at one time,

it seemed like every diner was owned by a  Greek family.

Anarchist poet and Greek-American

historian Dan Georgakas theorized that the  tradition was born from the kafenio,

a traditional Greek gathering space for men to  drink coffee and ouzo—an anise aperitif—while

gabbing about the day. Boys being boys drinking  coffee and gossiping—come on, you love to see it. When Greek immigration to New York started  picking up at the turn of the 20th century,

these coffee shops came as well, opening in Greek  neighborhoods.

Although there may be a thematic

connection between these spaces and the Greek  diners of the late 20th century, it was a second

wave of immigrants that largely came after 1965  that made Greek-owned New York diners iconic. Food businesses are traditionally one of the  most common ways new immigrants begin to build

a life in America. According to WBUR, “the  National Restaurant Association found in 2016

that 29 percent of restaurant and hospitality  businesses are immigrant owned, compared to

just 14 percent of all U.

S. businesses.”

A food business doesn’t take a ton of money

to start, and doesn’t necessarily require  a complete mastery of English to run. The

employees are often from the same country, if not  the same town, so there’s a cultural community,

with shared language, religion, and social  traditions. In the case of Greek diners,

new immigrants often started in the back  washing dishes and worked their way up

from busboy to cook to waiter, until they had  saved enough money to buy a diner of their own.

Both the menus and the interior design of New  York’s Greek diners are considered iconic. The

menus can be bafflingly long, encompassing dishes  as far-ranging as “pancakes to lobster tails,

omelets to spaghetti, moussaka to matzoh ball  soup, ‘famous’ oversized muffins to duck a

l'orange,” as New York Times writer Dena Kleiman  noted on the 1991 menu of the Harvest Diner in

Westbury, Long Island. One Manhattan diner boasts  220 menu items. “You have to satisfy everyone,”

Harvest Diner owner Charles Savva told the Times.

If a new menu item appeared in one restaurant, it

usually wasn’t long before it appeared in others. In a continual race to set each diner apart,

owners not only added menu items, but  lavish (or tacky, depending on your

perspective) interior decorations, like  “chandeliers dripping in faux crystal,

flowing draperies,” Greek statues, fountains  and flashing LED light shows. Even the graphic

design of these spaces has had a cultural  impact: Heck, the blue and white take-out coffee cups,

often printed with “We Are Happy to Serve You,”  a Greek-key pattern, and other Hellenic visuals

have become so iconic that MOMA Design Stores  sells ceramic versions of this classic cup.

Immigration from Greece into New York City peaked  in the mid 20th century. In the first decades of

the 21st century, Greek diner owners began to  retire and sell off their businesses to newer

generations of immigrants—people from South  Korea, Bangladesh, Central America, and more. With the rising cost of real estate  in the tri-state area, though,

some diners are being priced out of existence.

Some classic establishments have been torn down

for luxury high-rises; others have been displaced  by drug store chains or banks. Surviving diners

face competition from restaurant franchises. And those problems existed before the COVID-19

pandemic, which stopped most of us from dining  out.

More than half of New York's City’s diners

have closed in the last 25 years. 419 were open  in 2019; the full effects of the pandemic are

not yet known. Jeremiah Moss, author of the  blog Vanishing New York, summed up many New

Yorkers’ wistful sentiments when he wrote:  “It seems the longer you live in New York,

the more you love a city that has vanished.”

But many New York City stalwarts stubbornly

remain. B&H Dairy, a kosher dairy restaurant in  the East Village that opened in 1938, is currently

owned by an Egyptian man and a Polish woman, and  is staffed by people from all over the world,

who wear shirts that boast “Challah, por favor!”

One of the oldest continually operated diners in

New York is Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a dim sum  shop on Doyers Street that opened in 1920.

When you think of diners your mind might not  go straight to dumplings and chicken feet,

but this New York institution suggests the  expansive culinary traditions that can fit

under the ever-evolving “diner” label. Its classic  interior hasn’t been significantly updated since

the 1960s, and has the tile floor, Formica tables  and counters, chrome stools and red vinyl booths

of a classic diner. It was started by immigrants,  offers affordable fare and—even as it has emerged

as a destination for tourists—remains enmeshed in  its community.

In a nod to its New York identity,

its Nom Wah Kuai outpost even introduced the  baogel back in 2017, combining the beloved bao

bun with the equally esteemed bagel. For New Yorkers, these diners are

places of community and sometimes of  celebrity—after all, Seinfeld made

the facade of Tom’s Restaurant in Morningside  Heights iconic. They are family-owned businesses

and sometimes refuges for found families.

New York City, and the country at large, is

ever changing. It’s hard to say if the diner will  survive the next transition. So, if you’re lucky

enough to have a family-run diner in your city or  town, make sure to kick them some business.


a new pancake tradition; end up there after  a long night, just like when you were a teen;

or give yourself a break from doing dishes on a  Sunday morning at a place where you can order hash

browns, chicken fingers, and a martini all from  the same comfortable booth. These institutions

deserve to see another generation sit at their  counters. And, don’t forget about the pies.

We’re gonna start 2023 making Food History  episodes all about beloved dishes. If you have one

you’d like us to cover in the coming year, drop  it in the comments below. Thanks for watching,

and thanks to culinary historian and writer  Sarah Lohman for writing this script—we’ve

linked to her book, 8 Flavors, in the  description below.

See you next time!