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Diner Fare - With a Side of British Wit

AMERICAN DINER - THEN AND NOW By Richard J. S. Gutman. HarperPerennial, 272 pp., $20.

I CAN'T say for certain when I last ate in a diner. In fact, I can't say with absolute certainty that I have ever eaten in a diner. I think I did, though, at least once, somewhere in or near Pleasantville, N.J., in the late 1960s.

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If I'm right - and I unquestionably recall looking at the outside of a diner and thinking what a strange mixture of the permanent and impermanent it was, architecturally speaking - it was in this diner that I had my first slice of home-style pumpkin pie. To my surprise (having put off this particular gastronomic adventure for a number of years), I enjoyed it and became a convert to pumpkin pie. It seems, however, that I did not become a convert to diners.

Not that I have anything at all against these friendly eating places from outer space. But I should explain here that I am English, and that in England (and in Scotland, where I now live) there are less than a few diners deposited in vacant lots and on street corners to entice the hungry public. You could go further and aver that there are only two. We do have ad hoc hot-dog carts and fish-and-chip shops, and of course, a ubiquity of McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. But of diners we have

a distinct dearth. Our loss.

The diner is an American institution, and unlike some American institutions, it does not appear to have made much headway in other countries (though there are two in Japan).

I'm by no means qualified, then, to write even a single authoritative word about the diner. But I was interested, nevertheless, to note that architectural historian and author Richard J. S. Gutman, who claims to be "the world's foremost authority on diners," had his "eyes opened to them" as a student at Cornell University two decades ago "by a group of design critics visiting ... from Great Britain." Naturally, one is proud of this British input in the evolution of diner study.

Gutman observes: "They [the Brits, that is] had never seen anything like a diner, and after a close look, I guessed that neither had I." It seems strange to me that this was so, but maybe none of them ever went to an American movie. They certainly hadn't seen Barry Levinson's film "Diner," because that didn't come out until 1982, adding then its own footnote to the nostalgia scene.

Probably Gutman himself had simply taken diners for granted as vernacular, commonplace, and ignorable. But he, of all people, has made sure that the diner can no longer be overlooked as a valued part of American design and style history. Some diners are now even finding their way into museum collections. And others are being protected from vandals and the vandalism of change by being placed officially on the National Register of Historic Places.

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This I find completely fascinating. Diners throughout their history never were "places" - even when occasionally they were built on site. The whole point of the diner, surely, was that it was movable, even if it was never actually moved. All the early diners had wheels. The very early ones were moved to and from their sites by horses each day. The vast majority of diners were fabricated in factories and shipped to wherever they were to stand. When they wore out or became unfashionable and needed replacem ent, they were shipped back to factories for reconditioning, and then they might well take up residence somewhere else with new owners. Diners were symbols of a society on the move, of the impermanent, restless America.

Gutman has produced a new book on this subject. It contains, I imagine, a sufficient wealth of detailed information to satiate, at least for the time being, the appetites of the army of diner-lovers reputed to be out there. Gutman has called his book "American Diner Then and Now," though the word American is redundant. The book traces the development of diner design and manufacture, the diner's ups and downs, its stylistic changes, its popularity, and its adaptation to different social conditions. Decept ively slender this volume is. It is clearly the work of someone completely in the grip of an obsession.

Even after the main text is finished on page 221, there are 50 more pages filled with a "Directory of Dining Car Manufacturers," a list of diners open today for business, and an index. This book is no slipshod affair. Nor is it going to be the end of the story. The author finally declares: "Diners have been around now, in one form or another, for longer than anyone can remember. The way things are going they'll be around for a long time to come."

So just how are "things going?"

Gutman himself believes that while diners were in decline in 1971, at the time his interest began, today there are a number of factors indicating an upswing in diner popularity. I suspect that, as a diner-historian, he favors today's revival of old-style '40s and '50s diners - period pieces both in design and food - though other people might contend that this tendency to indulge in pastiche is a form of nostalgia signaling decline rather than renaissance. Anyway, it sounds fun. And the word "diner," acco rding to Gutman, remains a "drawing card."

I was a little disappointed that he doesn't mention anywhere the chains of small '50s diners that an informant assures me are springing up hither and yon. In these, I am told, waitresses are expected, when not actually serving Lime Rickies or french-fries-and-gravy, to dance to the rock-and-roll issuing from the jukebox - and to dance, no less, on the countertop. This would never happen in an English fish-and-chips shop....

Gutman does, however, mention Ed Debevic's.

Ed Debevic's (a diner with 300 seats) began in Chicago in 1984. By 1990, six more of these sites had been added around the States, and one in Japan.

Ed Debevic is, writes Gutman, "a mythical diner owner.... The places are cluttered with memorabilia from the 1950s and memorable quotations from mythical Ed, who's mysteriously never at the restaurant, but always out bowling. Waitresses are auditioned before they are hired. They must be able to smack their chewing gum and properly say, `Hi ya, hon!' to the customers. The Debevic's menu has been described as `burgers, fries, milkshakes, and laughter.' "

Now some think this is the "modern diner concept" while others argue it is no longer recognizable as a diner at all. Gutman quotes a New York Times article that quotes a patron called Wally Heatherly who said: "I've never seen a diner this large. A diner is a room with a row of booths on the side and a counter up front. But my daughter thinks it's a diner, so I won't disillusion her."

Me, I wouldn't know. On the one hand it would seem reasonable to suppose that the concept "diner" has its limits beyond which it is no longer a diner but something else. On the other hand, a really good concept arguably has the potential for unexpected development.

It's a predicament typical of our messy times, anyway. We play around inconclusively between past and future. Post-modernism hit diners like everything else. There was even a tendency in recent years to cover up the modernist stainless steel - which had become such an integral part of the appearance of diners - with brick, stucco, and paving stones! Diners began to look like Grecian motels.

NOW, however, there appears to be a reviving appreciation for the stream-lined stainless steel styling of the past that made diners look like a cross between something seen at Cape Canavarel and something seen at Central Station.

One truly exaggerated variation on the streamliner theme, which Gutman illustrates in his book, was a 1942 diner outside Philadelphia. It was shaped exactly like a train emerging from a tunnel (with the kitchen in the tunnel).

Who knows what the diner in A.D. 2000 will be like?

Whatever its future appearance and character, if Mr. Gutman has anything to do with it, the diner will remain to be loved. As two of the young male protagonists in the movie "Diner" say to each other in a moment of poignant self-doubt:

"We've always got the diner."

"Yes, we've always got the diner."

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