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Diners, the original prefab success story

These streamlined eateries offer nostalgia, a cheap meal, and prefabricated construction at its best

Rosie's Diner in Rockford Michigan was manufactured by the Paramount Dining Company in 1945. It’s had numerous cameos in Bounty Paper Towel commercials, where Rosie the waitress wiped counters and declared Bounty to be the “quicker-picker upper.”
Car Culture/Getty

By definition, diners are everyday and utilitarian, the no-frills, functional restaurant where nearly everyone can afford a meal. For decades, pulling up a seat or a stool and ordering a cup of coffee at these supremely democratic spaces has been a staple of the American diet, as well as the country’s pop culture.

From the loners in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to detectives downing coffee and cherry pie in the recently resurrected Double R of Twin Peaks, the symbolism of diners is as reflective of U.S. mythology as their steel exteriors.

Existing in a unique nexus of culture, culinary evolution, and construction history, diners offer simplicity and standardization by design. Built to be everywhere, they come from “nowhere” (an assembly line), and serve as a spiritual precursor to modern takes on prefab, mass-manufactured spaces. The American Diner Museum defines these humble restaurants as “prefabricated structures built at an assembly site and transported to a permanent location for installation to serve prepared food.” In practice, they’ve always been small businesses built at scale, affordable ways for entrepreneurs—including many immigrants—to become their own bosses.

Inspired by the shape of a railroad dining car, diners represent an old structure, built for a specific mode of transportation, being creatively reinvented for a century of growing cities, increased mobility, and machine-age design.

As converted cars with a few counters and stools made way for fixed corner restaurants in big cities the rapid adoption of diners across the country makes them some of the most popular and prevalent forms of prefab (and prefab-inspired) buildings in the country. Generations of architects and designers have sought to build a standardized, assembly-line home for the common man. Turns out the real moneymaker was mass-producing the kitchen.

Saturday night at Mickey’s in St. Paul, Minnesota
kkmarais: Flickr/Creative Commons

From the back of a wagon to the intersections of America

New Jerseyans would argue that they reside in the true homeland of diner culture (more than 600 still operate in the Garden State). But the beginnings of semi-mobile dining rooms actually trace their roots to nearby Rhode Island. In 1872, Walter Scott, an entrepreneur in Providence, turned a horse-drawn wagon into a car that served sandwiches, coffee, pies, and eggs (in truth, it was more food truck than diner). Selling food to laborers working late-night shifts was so lucrative, he quit his job as a printer to work the cart full time (nearly 150 years later, his original picks for the menu still forms the backbone of diner cuisine).

Scott served a mixed clientele of newspaper writers, workers on the late shift, theatergoers, and others needing a quick meal after most restaurants closed, who would grab a quick bite to eat while sitting on the curb. It seems quaint now in an age of 24-hour service, Seamless, and roadside rest stops to ever struggle to find a place for a hot meal, but Scott’s innovation came just as urbanization, industrialization, and soon, mass electrification, meant Americans were traveling more and working later—hence the isolated nighthawks of Hopper’s famous painting—and leaving rural hometowns for opportunities in booming downtowns. Providing meals for newly mobile Americans seemed tailor-made for a mechanized, mass-market solution.

But the diner concept needed to evolve before becoming a true roadside fixture. According to the Smithsonian, Scott’s concept was soon improved by Samuel Jones, who started adding fixed seats to his “rolling restaurant” in 1887. These contraptions became known as lunch cars, then dining cars, and finally, were simply referred to as diners.

As these mobile eateries spread across the Northeast, some entrepreneurs found there was more profit in building diners than operating them. The true inventor of the diner as we know now it, Philip H. Duprey, founded the Worcester Lunch Car and Carriage Manufacturing Company in 1906, which assembled cars with pre-built murals, lettering, frosted glass, ice boxes, and oversized wheels for navigating cobblestones. The company’s first operating diner, which operated on Myrtle Street nearby, according to author Richard Gutman’s history of the company, was elaborately designed: “Fancy block lettering, florid scrolling, and intricate pinstriping covered the body of the wagon, which also featured landscapes and hunting scenes in the style of the Dutch Old Masters. Colored-glass windows were also executed in various designs.”

By the 1900s, Worcester was competing against Tierney and O’Mahony, two other companies in the Northeast taking advantage of the new marker (at one point, O’Mahony claimed to make “a diner a day”). The old horse-drawn wagons had started to gain a bad reputation, which attracted municipal ordinances seeking to restrict their hours of operation.

Truck drivers having coffee at a diner along U.S. Highway 40 in Aberdeen, Maryland, in 1943.
John Vachon/Library of Congress

Diner owners began sidestepping the law by settling into semi-permanent locations. During the late ‘20s and ‘30s, diners adopted to changing styles and social constraints, according to historian Don Sawyer, adopting the streamlined look of Art Deco, and also shrinking in response to the Depression. But the traditional diner set-up, a mom-and-pop shop with an open kitchen, began to take shape. As these businesses grew, and became sit-down spots instead of single-operator spaces where the only employee was trapped behind the grill, waitresses and charismatic, personable owners began chatting up customers and creating a reputation for friendliness.

The post-war era saw diners boom in response to a roaring economy, the opening of the interstate, and returning crowds of GIs. According to Sawyer, small changes altered the diner experience: booths became more popular, new materials and products such as Formica and stainless steel began reshaping interiors, neon began gracing exteriors to beckon to motorists, while female employees, who started working as counter staff during the war, became increasing fixtures in diners. By the mid-’50s, 6,000 diners dotted the country’s roads, creating a network of 24-hour dining destinations.

A blueprint of Big Ernie's Fabulous Fifties Diner in Cape May County, New Jersey

A pioneer of prefab

Diners also showed how prefab construction could work, as long as the product was tailored for specific markets. New Jersey, due to its working-class population and transportation network, became ground zero for diners in the early 20th century. The local prevalence of the restaurants led manufacturers to set up factories nearby, shipping finished buildings, designed to be narrow enough to fit on railcars, across the country. (Jersey can claim to be the home of the diner in one sense—nearly 95 percent of these restaurants were manufactured in the state.)

According to Mark Nonestied, a historian who helped set up a diner history exhibit in (where else) New Jersey, if owners of newly purchased diners had any issues, they could ask for tune-ups. Manufacturers would pick up diners and bring them back for reconditioning at the factory. Construction and distribution channels became optimized as high demand kept factories churning out new, readymade restaurants.

The Melrose Diner in Philadelphia, Pennsylvanis
Carol Highsmith

Pop culture fixture

Despite decades of changing trends and shifts in construction, diners remain a potent symbol today, forever trapped in midcentury optimism. This aesthetic became even more welcome especially as fast food restaurants and chains began to supplement the role of diners in the 1960s—including Denny’s and Waffle House, which lifted design elements from their forebearers.

A revival of diner construction in the ‘70s nevertheless retained the retro look, even for far-flung models built in Europe. Even though the term began to become less clear-cut, as larger spaces made from prefabricated parts, or those simply built in homage to earlier structures (see Monk’s Cafe on Seinfeld), began popping up, the definition of a classic diner, and what that diner represents, remains unchanged.

Perhaps because of their utilitarianism and popularity, diners have become shorthand for the everyman in movies and television, as well as staples of the campaign trail. From Tony Soprano’s final scene to the Pulp Fiction dance-off, modern entertainment uses diners as symbols for the shared prosperity and joy of the ‘50s (and in those cases, innocence and innocence lost).

The interior of the modern diner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Carol Highsmith

The place of diners today

Diner manufacturers still exist today, with companies such as Kullman and DeRaffele occasionally constructing beautiful, streamlined new restaurants. But the economics of the business have become much more difficult: new units can cost more than $1 million, and retrofitting older models can also become costly, especially after custom replacement parts are factored into the project.

Diners built today often look more like traditional restaurants, unconstrained by size limitations, only adopting flourishes like neon and stainless steel as a design element. But diehards still work to promote and protect classic layouts. The American Diner Museum, established in 1996, has worked to preserve still-functioning examples of these historic buildings. Gutman, the diner expert, has helped restore dozens of these old-fashioned eateries.

The restaurant industry has tried to convey the same value that diners were heralded for, but few eateries have managed to capture what these prefab wonders really represent. What sounds more American than the idea that a community space could be built on an assembly line, shipped across the country, and set up anywhere one needs a cheap meal and a bottomless cup of coffee?