When the Dodgers moved to California, my grandparents moved, too, opening a New York–style diner in 1960,” says Harry Rudolph, the third-generation owner of Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla.
It’s the kind of great classic diner where you can count on affordable comfort food like steak and eggs, stacks of flapjacks, and a handmade milkshake. These diner menus often list more than 50 items and may reveal Greek or Jewish heritage (a spinach pie here, a hearty Reuben sandwich there). There’s a common décor too, of stainless steel, neon, mahogany, and chrome that looked cutting-edge in the 1940s and now feels retro.
While diners can be of the lunch-counter variety or resemble Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting, the easiest to recognize are the dining cars built by the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in New Jersey. It created and shipped more than 2,000 custom dining cars from 1917 to 1941. Less than three dozen still exist today.
Melissa Mattson’s father owns one such landmark: Mickey’s Dining Car in St. Paul, MN, which dates back to the late 1930s. “Times were hard, and workers only had 30 minutes for lunch,” reflects Mattson. “If you weren’t back in time, they fired you and gave your job to the next guy. Diners answered that need of good food fast, as well as being community gathering spots.”
Diners certainly pluck a chord of American nostalgia. They seem to belong to our culture and to help define it. Like family recipes and apple pie. Like baseball and Elvis. In fact, you can likely find some combination of those things inside the best diners. In the end, maybe a single definition isn’t necessary. Let’s just say, we know a diner when we see it.
Check out the slideshow above for the best diners in America.