Why Diners Are More Important Than Ever

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

So there I was, sitting at the counter of the Lexington Candy Shop, not really trying to mind my own business. I was thoroughly enjoying my pancakes with crispy edges, my softly scrambled eggs made in a pan, and my still-pliant bacon with still more crispy edges, when I overheard the following comments:

"So she is your first wife?"

"For your beautiful lady friend here, more coffee is free. For you it's a dollar."

"You don't want that. There are much better things on the menu."

I've had an egg- and toast-loaded three months of eavesdropping while eating my way through New York's diners, as many as I could without getting divorced, and have come to the inescapable conclusion that they are as essential to our way of life, our democracy, and our sense of community, as any other American institution we have right now.

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Diners, or proto-diner establishments, have been a part of American life for more than 140 years now, since a part-time pressman pulled up in front of the Providence Journal office in Rhode Island with a horse-drawn wagon to sell food to his hungry colleagues—a walk-up food establishment more sophisticated than a street vendor. They have played a significant role in art high and low, from Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks' painting to Barry Levinson's Diner movie. You'd be hard pressed to find a year in American television and film that doesn't have at least one scene set in a diner. I'd even go so far as to call it the quintessentially American restaurant.

First, let's define our term. What do we mean by a diner?

Defining the Diner

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Some define diners by their architecture: a freestanding structure, initially wooden and eventually fashioned after Pullman dining cars made of gleaming stainless steel, with lots of glass and more than a few Art-deco-ish accents. But today's diners come in all shapes and sizes. Sticking to those physical parameters discounts many great diners and the cultural value they hold.

After eating in diners all my life, and especially aggressively of late, here's my stab at the defining characteristics of a diner:

  1. Operating hours: Diners serve breakfast all day, and are usually, but not always, open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late night snacking.
  2. A common menu: At the very least they serve pancakes, French toast, eggs, burgers, fries, malts and/or shakes, tuna melts, salads, grilled cheese sandwiches, and many kinds of dessert, from ice cream sundaes to pie to layer cakes to cheesecake. Many of today's diner menus are notoriously long, including once-trendy food items like quesadillas, wraps, and smoothies.
  3. A democratic reception: Diners offer the same warm and sassy welcome to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity. Your server is invariably accepting, regardless of the condition you find yourself in when you walk in. My friend Pete Wells, the restaurant critic at the New York Times, says that for a diner to be a diner, it has to be the kind of place where the server calls you "hon." I'll disagree on that specific point, but I like the sentiment.
  4. Quick service: By and large you should be able to be seated immediately when you walk into a diner. I know there are some diners that measure their success by the length of their lines, but that is not a point of pride.
  5. Low price point: Diners are modestly priced, though what that means exactly depends on the real estate they occupy. What's more, there is no minimum spend at a diner. You should be able to sit down at a diner and order just a cup of not-great coffee or equally not-great fountain Coke.
  6. Seating: Diners have both counter and table/booth options.
  7. Familiarity: Diner staff will at least know your face by your third visit.
  8. All-occasion places: Diners must rise to many occasions, from first dates to pre- or post-game celebrations by fans or teammates, to wallowing in solitary self-pity. Diners are the best restaurants for planning murders, stick-ups, or other nefarious enterprises.
  9. Parking: Diners have parking lots, except in hyper-dense places like Manhattan.
  10. Culinary anonymity: You will probably never learn the name of the chef, or should I say the short-order cook, making your food. Cheffy diners, where the food and prices are "elevated," are a different breed. See the Empire Diner in New York, the Down-Home Diner in Philly, Diner in Brooklyn, Little Goat in Chicago, and Fog City Diner in San Francisco.

With these criteria, all kinds of establishments can be lumped together with classic diners. When I was a kid growing up on Long Island next to JFK Airport, I had the Sherwood Diner, where I'd get a cheeseburger deluxe or a hot roast beef sandwich as a teenager. But I also had Harry's, a combination candy store and luncheonette that made (at least in my foggy taste memory) exemplary fountain drinks, burgers, and egg sandwiches. Harry's wasn't open for dinner and it didn't have booths, but it fulfilled all the other diner criteria above, so I feel comfortable calling it one.

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Then there are the New York metropolitan area's Greek coffee shops, which didn't start out as diners, but became effectively synonymous with them in the late '40s. And there are truck stop greasy spoons, many of which look nothing like classic diners but are diners all the same.

What about chains? Can a chain restaurant be a diner? In certain parts of the country, where mom-and-pop diner-like establishments have more or less gone extinct, "family restaurant" chains like Waffle House and Denny's have effectively taken their place. I have a friend who grew up in Alabama eating at a long-since closed family diner. His 90-year-old father now takes his regular seat at the Waffle House in their town.

Diners Are About Everything But the Food

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There's one more diner criterion that I haven't previously mentioned: The food is not usually a diner's main attraction, nor should it have to be.

When I first started thinking about this post, I tried to devise an ultimate diner test: a list of dishes a diner has to do well to be considered a "good" diner. Then I ate in 25 diners across New York City and quickly realized that good food isn't the ultimate test of a good diner.

I'm not trying to bash diner food here. I'm just saying that food is not what you come to a diner for, and it's not why diners remain a vitally important part of our culture. Diners are so important because they are the greatest bastions of civility, service, and dare I say grace available to all economic strata in this country. Service-oriented restaurants, like Danny Meyer's Union Square Cafe and innumerable Shake Shacks, are all about treating all guests with equal dignity and respect. And I love them for doing so. But diners have been doing this for years, and for an even greater cross-section of the population. The only dining institutions that reach a wider audience are fast food chains, not exactly known for their kindness to customers.

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People talk about Starbucks reintroducing the notion of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the "third place" in American life: spaces where we gather besides home and work to form real, not virtual, communities. Starbucks and more high-minded cafes that followed in its wake have surely succeeded on this point, but long before 1971, when the first Starbucks opened in Pike Place Market in Seattle, diners were already serving that invaluable function for us, along with the corner tavern.

And that's why we need to cherish our local diners, whether it's a mom and pop or a Waffle House or a Greek coffee shop. They're some of the few cheap, all-inclusive places to eat and hang out and laugh and cry and stay viscerally connected with other folks.

A few days ago I asked my server at a diner if I could order a patty melt, even though it wasn't on the menu. "Sure," she replied with a half smile. "Just tell us what you want and if we have the fixin's we'll make it for you."

Ed's New York Diner Picks

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Just because diners aren't about the food doesn't mean you can't get good food at one. You can usually find two to three things your diner does well. Here are my findings from the 25 diners I hit:

Pancakes: Landmark Pancake House is a stone's throw away from Serious Eats HQ in Chinatown, and their fluffy and light pancakes have those all-important crispy edges, more than enough to make them my breakfast from time to time.

Eggs: If your diner makes softly scrambled or over-easy eggs or omelets in a pan instead of a griddle, avail yourself of those eggs. I like the omelets at Cup & Saucer in Chinatown, where they're really more like scrambles, especially if you ask for some chunks of gyro meat inside.

Egg Sandwich: At Classic Coffee Shop, the single chef-owner-server Carmine Morales makes your eggs (and everything else) in a pan over a portable two-burner stove. He makes an exemplary egg and cheese on a bagel: egg that's not overcooked with thoroughly melted cheese.

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Cheeseburger: This should be your go-to non-breakfast item at Square Diner in Tribeca, where it's credibly cooked to medium rare, with properly melted cheese on both sides of a lightly toasted potato roll with griddled onions. Joe Junior in Gramercy also makes a textbook diner burger, as Nick Solares has eloquently reported before.

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Tuna Sandwich: A well-made tuna sandwich on rye toast should be another non-breakfast regular order, if it's as good as the one at the New Wave Cafe on the Upper West Side. The tiny Classic Coffee Shop's tuna melt is also best in class, with evenly toasted bread and tuna salad with just the right amount of mayo.

And let's not forget about Eisenberg's, which calls itself a sandwich shop but could be equally well described as a diner. I've been eating their tuna sandwich for 25 years and still marvel at how tasty it is. If you go in December when they make latkes, one of those golden brown specimens is the perfect accompaniment to a tuna sandwich.

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Turkey Sandwich: Court Square Diner served me a hot open-faced turkey sandwich with a nice mix of moist light and dark meat. The gravy is light but meaty, not too starchy, and it's accompanied by nice mashed potatoes.

French Fries: Nothing beats the fresh fries at Burger Heaven, which are thick and skin-on. You have to ask for them well done, which makes them a beautiful burnished brown, and increases the chances that they'll be cooked to order.

Hash Browns: New York diners are famously bad at cooking hash browns. The exception is the Bronx's Bedford Cafe Restaurant, when you ask for the potatoes well done. Doing so will get you soft and creamy potatoes with a mahogany crust, studded with little pieces of tender peppers and onions.

Potato Pancakes: In the gorgeous ethnic mosaic that is New York there are also diner-like places serving Eastern European peasant food, the kind my Russian Jewish grandmother made for me when I was growing up. One of my favorites is the Stage Restaurant, a counter-only establishment that feels like it hasn't changed in 50 years (it probably hasn't). What do I eat there? What else? Thin, crispy potato pancakes, slightly greasy but seriously delicious pierogi (boiled or fried) that must be ordered topped with fried onions, and blintzes that are surprisingly light made with thin and delicate crepes.

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Dessert: Sky-high cakes are mostly skippable at diners, but in Long Island City, the Court Square Diner makes a moist, chocolatey mousse cake on premises that you shouldn't miss. Their milkshakes are also worth an order: rich and creamy, but not too thick to slurp through a straw.

My new favorite diner: Out of all the diner-like places I visited for this post, my favorite is the Lexington Candy Shop. Why? Because it looks old, not faux-old, and the service is superb.

And the bonus is that the food is really good: an excellent, appropriately sized, griddled cheeseburger came medium rare as ordered, not an easy thing to do with a four-ounce patty. I had a great coffee malt made with extra malt powder as requested and Bassett's ice cream, and homey, airy pancakes with crispy edges. They even serve a killer shrimp salad sandwich made with good bread from Orwashers. And the eggs: fine, softly scrambled with bacon that didn't suffer from bacon rigor mortis.

Now if only it were open for dinner.

More Diner Reading Worth Your Time

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My friend Tim Carman of the Washington Post wrote a great piece about diners in 2009 on how they were handling the economic recession. Here was his genius lede: "Jim and I are sitting in a corner booth at American City Diner on Connecticut Avenue, bantering with our waiter with the bone-dry wit. When Jim asks if the OJ is really freshly squeezed, the server says it says so right on the carton."

The New York Times digs into the origins of the Greek diner and remarks on the diner's infinite menu.