According to the BBC, the diner is “the ultimate symbol of America.” With its up-all-night waffles and cherry pie, America’s diet seemed to fit the self-conscious, art-deco restaurant with the chrome trim perfectly. The peak of this iconic locale was that mainstay decade of mom-and-pop glory—the 1950s—when everyone from kids to teens to adults seemed to live on burgers, fries and shakes.
Of course, times change, and businesses must learn to adapt. A diner culture that was in the midst of a nosedive just a few years ago has perked up a bit, thanks to a smattering of restaurants that are choosing to think outside the box.
Rethinking Diner Fare
Today’s patron wants two things from the diner—the simple, delicious menu staples she knows and loves, and to acknowledge and embrace the creativity and sustainability of the slow food movement. The typical customer wants a delicious omelet any time of day, and she would prefer the eggs to be cage-free. She wants unlimited coffee refills, but hopes for higher quality coffee brewed well.
At San Francisco’s Fog City Diner, patrons can snack on grilled oysters and truffle fries while awaiting their entrée of Vegan Tartine, created by chef de cuisine Kenny Fox. The lime rickeys are made with cane sugar, and the burger sports bacon jam and gruyere cheese. The diner’s location is steeped in history—the original building at 1300 Battery Street was feeding hungry sailors decades ago before they shipped out to serve in World War II.
Coffee—The Centerpiece of The American Diner
What’s a diner without coffee? Perhaps it’s the well-known, universally popular feature of “breakfast all day”—which is part of a true diner’s DNA—coffee tastes good with eggs and bacon, good with pancakes and waffles—good with virtually any food. If you’re serving breakfast all day, you’re serving coffee all day, too—lots of it. But the coffee game has changed, and patrons are expecting more.
Diner in Brooklyn, NY, with its locavore menu and outstanding coffee service, is “basically responsible for Williamsburg's existence as the coolest neighborhood in the country,” writes Andrew Steinthal in The Infatuation. At the Palace Diner in Biddeford, Maine, only local coffee (from nearby Portland) is served, and in a nod to diner-ism, it’s only served drip-style. The Little Goat in Chicago, perhaps the best-known of the new wave of American diners, boasts an entire coffee menu featuring all the usual suspects—cappuccino, macchiato—and a few unusual ones, like a goat’s milk latté.
The Future of the American Diner
They say you can’t go home again, and America’s diner culture has certainly changed drastically from its 1950s roots. But thanks to a small army of chefs determined to take old-school dining to the next culinary level—sourcing grass-fed beef, adding lemon zest to the pancakes—it seems the diner will be sticking around for quite awhile.