The classic New York diner once seemed as enduring and American as the Statue of Liberty, but the diner is a dying breed with city diners closing in droves due to rising rents, food costs and consumer tastes changing. These days, with the spread of craft coffee culture, there are no shortages of cafes to get one’s caffeine fix and the rise of a more artisanal approach to eating, traditional diner menus are falling out of favour.
Diners were born in the late 1800s evolving from food carts that sustained hungry late-night workers with sandwiches, coffee and pies. Savvy owners began evolving the model through revamping outdated railroad cars to provide shelter and seating. To add warmth to the train cars, owners began adding inviting touches such as wallpaper and flower boxes. The 1930s saw a move toward the sleek, streamlined design more in line with the times with the signature open kitchens. With the advent of World War II and the growth of women in the workforce, the diners catered to their interests and replicated home-cooked meals.
Other than the introduction of neon in the 1980s, the general aesthetic of the diners has remained rather retro, from chrome accents and wipe-clean leather banquettes to soda fountains and name-badged waitresses, the institutions are the pillars of Americana and are immortalized in countless cult films, art and literature as well as the fashion world.
Diners have stuck to their humble roots, remaining a democratic dining experience. Many are open 24 hours, catering to all manner of guests, from blue-collar workers refuelling after a shift and teenagers sipping milkshakes on dates, to families having a road-trip pit stop or senior citizens gossiping over their daily cup of joe. For many, diners hold a nostalgic appeal not just for a simpler way of eating, but for a less fussy time. But as the diner becomes increasingly more of a dining curiosity than a regular destination, time could be running out to taste a piece of living American history. So next time you visit NYC be sure to make time to visit an old-fashioned diner, what’ll you have? Well, that’s up to you.