The Evolution of American Diners

Photo by Michael Kleen

Diners are quintessentially American. They represent affordable dining for the working class, mobility, entrepreneurship, and mass production. Diners have evolved over the decades to accommodate our trends and tastes, from tableside juke boxes to Greek-American cuisine.

The earliest diners were lunch carts pulled by horses. Entrepreneurs parked them outside factories to feed hungry workers as they came on and off shift. Many stayed open 24-hours to accommodate all shifts. Walter Scott began the first lunch cart/wagon service in Providence, Rhode Island in 1872.

Photo by Michael Kleen

Casey’s Diner, at 36 South Avenue in Natick, Massachusetts, is a rare 1922 Worcester model and possibly the oldest continually operating diner in the United States. Like many early diner owners, Fred Casey began as a food cart salesman. He purchased this ten-stool diner in 1927 and originally located it on Washington Street. It moved to its current location in 1977. Diners in the 1920s were primarily made of wood.

Photo by Michael Kleen

Boulevard Diner, at 155 Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a 1936 Worcester model, #730. The Worcester Lunch Car Company operated in this city from 1906 to 1957 and manufactured hundreds of lunch carts and classic diners. You can see its obvious appearance as a railroad car, with a barrel roof and entrances at each end.

Photo by Michael Kleen

The Birdseye Diner, at 590 Main Street in Castleton, Vermont, is a 1946 Silk City. It originally had a wooden exterior, but after 18 years was refitted with stainless steel and chrome. Diners in the 1940s began to take on a more “classic” appearance. As WW2 ended and returning vets went to work in northeastern cities, their kids grew up on diner food.

Photo by Michael Kleen

Wolfe’s Diner, 625 N. U.S. Route 15 in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, is an O’Mahony-style diner circa 1952. The 1950s were the heyday of diners. You can see how diners manufactured during this period retained their familiar shape, but were more streamlined, decked out in stainless steel, with an entrance facing the front. They became the place for teenagers to go on dates and hang out.

Photo by Michael Kleen

In the late 1960s and ’70s, diners underwent a radical change. They became fixed structures, built on site, many with neon lights and glass blocks. The Airport Diner, at 3760 Veterans Memorial Hwy in Bohemia, Long Island, New York, was opened by Simon Hiones in 1975 and is run by his son, Peter.

Photo by Michael Kleen

By the 1990s, diners resembled classic restaurants, built on site with larger dining rooms. They catered to nostalgia with Art Deco and populux architectural elements, neon, stainless steel, and pastel colors. The Eveready Diner, at 4184 U.S. Route 9 North (Albany Post Road), in Hyde Park, New York is a 1995 Paramount model, #174.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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