The earliest diners were lunch carts pulled by horses that stayed open 24-hours to accommodate factory workers coming off shifts. Walter Scott began the first lunch cart/wagon service in Providence, Rhode Island in 1872. Patrick J. Tierney followed in 1895, Worcester Lunch Car Company in 1906, Jerry O’Mahony in 1917, Silk City in 1926, and Kullman Dining Car Company in 1927. By the end of the decade, most of the major diner manufacturers were established.
These restaurants are called diners because they resembled railroad dining cars. Many were manufactured with wheels and pulled to their locations on railroads, since railroads connected the nation’s factories before the automobile took off. 1920s diners tended to be small and made of wood. Only a few still exist.
Casey’s Diner, at 36 South Avenue in Natick, Massachusetts, is a rare 1922 Worcester model. 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 was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
T. J. Buckley’s, at 132 Elliot Street in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a restored 1925 Worcester Dining Car (#424) owned by chef Michael Fuller. It was originally located in Woburn, Massachusetts but moved to Brattleboro in the 1950s. Its origin as a train car is easy to see in this photo.
Dan’s Diner, at 1005 NY-203 in Chatham, New York, is a 1925 O’Mahony. Owner Dan Rundell purchased this dilapidated diner in 1993 in Durham, Connecticut and spent 12 years restoring it to its former glory. This is a rare wooden O’Mahony. Only 26 pre-war Streamline Moderne-style diners built by the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company still exist.
Main Street Diner, at 40 E. Main Street (U.S. Route 20) in Westfield, New York, is a Ward & Dickinson model with an attached dining area. It features 1950s-style nostalgic interior decor. It was originally owned by Harold Washburn and Walter Moore circa 1929. It has undergone so many renovations, it’s difficult to see the original structure.