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.
The 1940s saw the end of the Great Depression but the beginning of America’s involvement in World War 2. Diners continued to roll off assembly lines, and after the war ended, expanded from industrial centers of the northeast to suburbs and smaller towns as well. They retained their train car appearance and were almost entirely made from steel, with Art Deco architectural elements.
The Modern Diner at 364 East Avenue in Pawtucket, Rhode Island is a 1940 Sterling Streamliner built by the John B Judkins Company. It was the first diner to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is one of two Sterling Streamliners still in operation. I love this unique Art Deco design.
In the inter-war period, 1918 to 1941, diners became a staple of American dining. They were larger to accommodate more seating, and began to use less wood. Many retained the same barrel-roof structure as their predecessors. The Great Depression meant people had less money to spend on dining out, so diners became a popular alternative in the pre-fast food era. One Silk City advertisement called it a “Depression-proof business.”
Joseph Fodero, using his experience gained from working with P. J. Tierney Sons and Kullman Industries, opened the Fodero Dining Car Company in 1933, and Les Daniel and Henry Strys, late comers to the diner game, opened Mountain View Diners Company in Singac, New Jersey in 1938.
Tom’s Diner, at 1200 U.S. Route 46 (south of the I-80 interchange) in Ledgewood, New Jersey, is a 1930 Silk City and the second oldest diner in New Jersey. It was used as a location in Cyndi Lauper’s music video for her 1984 hit “Time After Time.” You can see this would have been a beautiful diner when it first opened.
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.
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.
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.
In 1983, 19-year-old Jimmy John Liautaud opened a sandwich shop in a small college town with a loan from his dad. He’s now worth $1.7 billion. That sandwich shop was Jimmy John’s, now a national sandwich chain, and that college was Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. Jimmy made his business profitable by offering fast delivery to the EIU dorms, and that’s how I encountered the sandwich chain 17 years later.
I first ate Jimmy John’s my freshman year of college, back in the fall of 2000. I didn’t have a car down at school, and when I got tired of dorm food, I would order Jimmy John’s and have it delivered to Carman Hall. A sandwich only cost $3.25, plus tip, and it came in a brown paper bag. Later, they came out with plastic cups with a different design on them every year. I have a collection somewhere.
When I was younger, I loved Subway, but there was something simple about Jimmy John’s sandwiches, and their menu hasn’t changed much over the years. Just pick a number and you’re set. On nice days, I always enjoyed sitting on the picnic bench outside the shop in the alley behind Positively Fourth Street Records.
It’s fashionable for bars and restaurants to claim some connection to the days of Prohibition, but Roc’s Blackfront Tavern & Grill, at 410 Sixth Street in Charleston, Illinois, is the real deal. It even has the memorabilia to prove it. In my senior and graduate school years at nearby Eastern Illinois University, I frequented Roc’s to have a drink with friends in a classier atmosphere than the usual college bars.
That brick building, absent its black tile facade and martini glass-shaped neon sign, was originally built for the Charleston Courier newspaper office in 1841. Willis W. McClelland opened the Red Front Saloon there in 1917. As fate would have it, the Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale of alcohol in the United States passed in 1919. What were establishments like the Red Front Saloon to do? The saloon changed its name to McClelland’s Cafe and continued to clandestinely sell alcohol a short walk from the county courthouse.
Racing enthusiast Hank O’Day bought the speakeasy in 1931 and renamed it Hank O’Day’s Tavern after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. Illegal activities continued, however. O’Day ran an underground casino in the room above the bar, complete with buzzer system to alert patrons of police raids. When owner Mike Knoop renovated in 1996, he discovered hidden gambling devices and paraphernalia, including total boards for horse racing and a roulette wheel that now hangs on the wall.