New Jersey is often described as the diner capital of the United States, but in my opinion, New York out paces it by far. You won’t find such a large concentration of classic diners anywhere else. In 1895, Patrick J. Tierney, who coined the term “diner”, began a lunch wagon business that grew so fast it inspired him to begin manufacturing the mobile restaurants himself in his hometown of New Rochelle, New York. Two of his former employees went on to create the iconic diner manufacturers Fodero Dining Car Company and the Kullman Dining Car Company.
The DeRaffele Manufacturing Company took over the Tierney factory in New Rochelle in 1933 and continues to operate there to the present day. Two other New York-based diner builders were the Orleans Manufacturing Company in Albion, New York (only built three diners) and Ward & Dickinson in Silver Creek, New York. Ward & Dickinson operated from 1923 to 1940.
The Red Robin Diner, at 268 Main Street, is a classic Mountain View-style diner that originally opened in neighboring Binghamton in 1950 and moved to its present location in 1959. The 35-ton diner took two hours to move. Chris and Pat Anagnostakos ran the business for 37 years until retirement.
Jerry and Daniel O’Mahony founded the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1917, sparking a renaissance of New Jersey diner manufacturing. It operated until 1952, churning out around 2,000 prefabricated restaurants. An offshoot called Mahony Diners, Inc. built four more diners before closing in the late 1950s.
“A modern Jerry O’Mahony dining car is more than just a casual eating place, – it’s the kind of place that people enthuse about and return to frequently,” a 1943 company advertisement promised.
Despite being one of the oldest and most prolific diner manufacturers in the country, only a few dozen O’Mahony diners remain. I’ve visited O’Mahonys in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Virginia. O’Mahony diners have a simple, rectangular design with a ridged stainless steel exterior. Most have single-door, centrally located entrances.
Triangle Diner, at 27 W. Gerrard Street in Winchester, Virginia, is a 1948 O’Mahony with a stainless steel exterior and a storied history. Though currently closed, the Triangle Diner employed future country music star Patsy Cline in the early 1950s. Unlike many diners, it has sat at the same intersection since it opened. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
Vermont is a hidden gem for diner enthusiasts. Quaint mountain towns dot the countryside, and classic diners await hungry travelers. Though Vermont wasn’t known for diner manufacturing, enough found their way to the Green Mountain State to make this an important detour on any culinary tour.
Chelsea Royal Diner, at 487 Marlboro Road in West Brattleboro, Vermont, is a 1939 Worcester Diner (#736) moved here from downtown West Brattleboro. The 1958 sign was discovered in a New Hampshire barn and restored in 1999. The staff takes pride in its locally sourced food and homemade “Royal Madness” Ice Cream.
Public House Diner, at 5573 Woodstock Road in Quechee, Vermont, is a 1946 Worcester (#787). It was originally the Ross Diner located in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It closed in 1990 and moved to New Hampshire for a few short years before ultimately coming to Vermont. Since then, it’s had a succession of names, including the Yankee Diner, Farmer’s Diner, and the Quechee Diner. It reopened as the Public House in 2017 at Quechee Gorge Village, a tourist’s trap outside Quechee State Park.
In 1895, Patrick J. Tierney, who coined the term “diner”, began a lunch wagon business that grew so fast it inspired him to begin manufacturing the mobile restaurants himself in his hometown of New Rochelle, New York. Two of his former employees went on to create the iconic diner manufacturers Fodero Dining Car Company and the Kullman Dining Car Company. A third, Angelo DeRaffele, continued Tierney’s work in New York.
The DeRaffele Manufacturing Company, founded by DeRaffele and Carl A. Johnson as Johnson & DeRaffele, took over the Tierney factory in New Rochelle in 1933 and continues to operate there to the present day. Angelo DeRaffele started working for Tierney as a carpenter in 1921. When the Tierney company closed, DeRaffele partnered with company president Carl A. Johnson to continue manufacturing diners under a new name. DeRaffele took over full ownership in 1947.
I’ve visited DeRaffele diners in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Classic DeRaffele diners are typically flat and rectangular with stainless steel, striped exteriors with center entrances. More recent diners built on site have a distinctive three-tiered “crown” over the entrance.
Three Brothers Diner, at 242 White Street in Danbury, Connecticut, is a 1990 DeRaffele. I love the red-trim stainless steel exterior. The letters that spell “diner” on the sign change color. It is open 24 hours on the weekend and is a favorite of students from nearby Western Connecticut State University.
If Rhode Island can claim to be the birthplace of American diners, Massachusetts is a close second. Thomas Buckley began to sell lunch wagons in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1887. Charles Palmer, who patented a “Night-Lunch Wagon” in 1893, also operated in Worcester. The Worcester Lunch Car Company, of course, was an iconic diner manufacturer from 1906 to 1957.
Ralph’s Rock Diner, at 148 Grove Street in Worcester, Massachusetts, is a 1930 Worcester model, #660. The Worcester Lunch Car Company operated in this city from 1906 to 1957 and manufactured hundreds of lunch carts and classic diners. Robert and Mamie Gilhooly originally opened this diner on Grove Street in Worchester’s Chadwick Square (hence the name, Chadwick Square Diner). It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
Route 66 Diner, at 950 Bay Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, is a 1957 Mountain View, one of the last manufactured by that Signac, New Jersey company. Originally called the Bay Diner, owner Donald A. Roy bought it in 1975 and the restaurant is managed by his brother-in-law, Charlie Allen. It is cash only.
Spurred on by 1950s nostalgia and TV shows like Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (2007-present), diners made a cultural comeback in the 2000s. These were fixed structures (built on site) with large dining rooms and lots of stainless steel, Art Deco, Populux, and Doo Wop design elements, and neon lights. They were predominantly built by DeRaffele Manufacturing in New Rochelle, New York.
Diners in the 2000s were built to resemble 1950s diners while catering to contemporary tastes. Unlike diners of the past, many chefs crafted their menus around organic or healthy eating. Interior decor often includes vintage records, jukeboxes, pictures of 1950s cars and old diners, and cardboard cutouts of 1950s waitresses.
Gus’s Diner, at 630 N. Westmount Drive in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, is filled with 1950s nostalgia. It has a wonderful stainless steel exterior and has been run by the current owners since 2008. The building was built in 2005, but I haven’t been able to determine the manufacturer.
The 1950s were both the heyday and twilight of classic American diners. As fast-food began to take off and the population grew, entrepreneurs were less likely to invest in establishments with such limited space and seating. Major diner manufacturers went out of business in the 1950s, including The Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in 1952, the Worcester Lunch Car Company in 1957, and Mountain View Diners Company in 1957.
Still, when you think of the classic American diner, the 1950s always come to mind, with countertop jukeboxes and waitresses in pink aprons. In the late 1950s, the term “diner-restaurant” began to be used, as restaurateurs built larger, fixed structures retaining familiar diner elements.
Wolfe’s Diner, 625 N. U.S. Route 15 in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, is a 1952 O’Mahony, one of the last to be produced. Striped, stainless steel exteriors and flat roofs (as opposed to the classic barrel roof) and neon lights are characteristic of diners built in the 1950s. They resemble RVs or mobile homes.