The Incomparable Appeal
If you live outside the New York Metropolitan area you probably have not heard that the last “Tad’s Steakhouse” on the East Coast is closing (one remains extant in San Francisco). Tad’s started in New York City in 1957 offering a (skinny & gristly) steak, baked potato, salad, and garlic bread for $1.09. It was a steakhouse for the working class and proved to be popular for decades. Tad’s success led to imitators, of course, and in 1963 Dan (“Hoss”) Blocker started a chain of Bonanza steakhouses (named after the successful tv western he starred in), followed, in 1965, by Ponderosa steakhouses (named for the ranch on the tv show). We had a Ponderosa in Bay Shore, where I grew up, and, when playing varsity football for the high school, our team tradition on Saturday mornings was to go to 8:00 a.m. mass at St. Patrick’s Church (even though only some of the players were Catholic --- we were following the model of the NY football Giants, who had a Catholic “team chaplain”)and then had a steak and egg breakfast special at Ponderosa, our “training table” meal. There are still Bonanza and Ponderosa steakhouses in business and I think Golden Corral is probably a descendent of the “working class steakhouse.” The menus, even at Tad’s, expanded over time (Golden Corral boasts an “endless buffet”) and, as I listened to the NYC Tad’s obituary on NY One, the local City news channel, I thought back to those days in Bay Shore when Ponderosa was a Saturday morning destination for 8 weeks each Fall but our main eating destination was the O-Co-Nee Diner, on Montauk Road (Main St.) just past Windsor Avenue and the Brightwaters village line.
The greater reflection this led to was that I don’t recall my family ever going to the Ponderosa --- or to any “fancy” linen tablecloth & napkin restaurant --- when we were kids. “Eating out,” to us, a rare and special occasion, meant going to the Highway Diner on Main St. (Montauk Road) in Babylon --- even after we had moved to Bay Shore (we would, on very rare occasions “go out” for “Chinese” food --- a chicken chow mein joint). Maybe it was my early exposure to the Highway Diner, as well as my high school experiences at the O-Co-Nee and Peter Pan diners, that created my lifelong love for the precursors to the countless fast-food establishments marring our landscape. The diner is a uniquely American institution and one that has been integral to my personal history.
Before relating that history, here’s a quick look at the evolution of the culinary mainstay of the Northeast U.S., in particular, as well as segments of the Midwest. Most research about diners point to a man named Walter Scott who, in 1872, parked a horse-drawn wagon outside the Providence Journal building every night and sold sandwiches and food to the newspaper workers. Scott’s wagon evolved, over time, into the shiny chrome and glass buildings we now identify as “quintessential” diners. Scott’s original wagons were improved upon by making them big enough for patrons to stand inside ( avoiding inclement New England weather), eventually adding a counter and stools. As their popularity grew, the mobile wagons (dubbed “Nite Owls” because they started by catering to night shift workers), often open after restaurants closed at 8 p.m., became so pervasive that city’s began passing ordinances to curb hours of operation. As a result, wagons were slowly but surely replaced by more permanent structures. When horses were replaced by mechanized cars, cart owners began procuring large “cars/trucks” and converting them into eateries. In the early 20th century these places first gained their “greasy spoon” reputation, along with a clientele that often was seen as less than savory.
But history moved on and, particularly after women received the vote in 1920, diner owners began cleaning up their act (often re-naming their establishments and adding “Miss” to their title, to appeal to women). This is when flower boxes and booth service were added and diners began to resemble the places we are familiar with today. It was in the 1920s that diner-car-construction companies emerged, incorporating the “railroad car” look, using the word “diner” and introducing innovations like indoor bathroom facilities. Despite the Depression, diners --- due to their affordable food prices --- survived and after World War II, with the population shifting to the suburbs, diners hit their Golden Age.
1950s diners featured the classic style we now think of when we hear the word “diner:” chrome, glass, tile, a Formica counter with seats, and brightly-lit display cases featuring homemade baked goods. Keep in mind that in the 50s, all this was “futuristic” and classic “form follows function” design. As the 1960s progressed, with the Space Age upon us, diner architecture reflected that modernism but, by the end of the decade, felt the pinch of the new fast-food industry (catering to an “on-the-move/on-the-run” population that wanted cheap food fast). Diner manufacturers responded by offering:
Neoclassical, Tudor, and Mediterranean styles. Artificial stonework, dark stained wood, earth-tone colors, and fabrics replaced the flashy look of stainless steel, neon, and bold colors. Many old diners were remodeled and covered with brick walls and mansard roofs. (americandinermuseum.org)
You may have reacted as I did to this “new” Diner style: WHAT? I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now --- give me the chrome and steel railroad car any day.
The late 1970s brought a renewed interest in Diners and some national chains (Denny’s, Johnny Rockets, Silver Diners) emulated the classic 1950’s chrome/glass style with greater(Silver) and lesser (Denny’s)success. Some of the older original diners (like The Modern in Pawtucket, Rhode Island) have been saved from the wrecking ball by receiving “Historic Landmark” status. If you are a native New York Metropolitan area citizen, it is hard to imagine a world without diners and, for me, they are always integral to my sense of place.
Once I left Long Island (and the O-Co-Nee and Peter Pan) in 1967 I found myself in New Haven, Connecticut. Luckily, for me, there was The Yankee Doodle, a 12-stool burger & breakfast shop right on Elm Street (closed in 2008) and Hungry Charlie’s (now Toad’s Place, a music venue) on York. If you wanted to hike up Chapel Street you could also eat at the classic chrome and glass Elm City Diner (now Tandoor the Clay Oven Indian restaurant). If you have grown up with diners, there is an inherent need to have one nearby. Once I moved to Westchester, The White Plains Coach Diner proved an adequate stop and my Diner “habit” while living in Boston and Cambridge (1984-87, 1994-1995)was more than met by Charlie’s Kitchen (on Eliot St., Cambridge), Bartley’s Burger Cottage (on Mass. Ave./Harvard Square) and The Tasty (in Harvard Square, used for a scene in Good Will Hunting. Like the Yankee Doodle, closed in 1997). When I got back to New York City (1987-1994, 2008-2014) I became a regular at my all-time favorite diner, Big Nick’s Burger Joint, and wrote an essay about it for a seminar I took with Ian “Sandy” Frazier of the New Yorker( 2010). Re-reading that piece, here is a paragraph that stood out.
Between 72nd St. and 86th St., up Broadway and down Amsterdam Avenue, there are seven diners. The Utopia (72nd & Amsterdam, east side), the Manhattan Diner (77th & Broadway, east side), and Café 82 (82nd & Broadway, east side) are all expansive places with counters that sit at least a dozen people, an impressive number of booths (both four and two seaters) and some freestanding tables. The New Wave Café (Broadway & 79th, east side) and the Shining Star Restaurant (Amsterdam & 78th, east side) are smaller versions of those three. E.J’s Luncheonette (Amsterdam & 81st, east side) is one of those “nouveau” diners, full of chrome and glass that tries to make you feel like you’re on the “Happy Days” set. While I’ve eaten at all these places (and still do, occasionally), none of them struck the responsive chord that Big Nick’s Burger Joint (Broadway & 77th, west side) did for me. Maybe because it isn’t a stereotypical place, but probably because, for me, it’s such a “New York” place, Big Nick’s has been my diner of choice for almost 25 years now.
What is most striking, re-reading the paragraph in 2019, is that only The Utopia, Café 82, and The New Wave remain in the neighborhood. E.J.’s ultimately became a Meatball Shop and I’m not sure what its current incarnation is. Big Nick’s was consumed by the boutique Hotel Belleclaire (which was an SRO flophouse back in the day). Of course, if you want to jump the #1 Train you can go up to Tom’s Restaurant on the edge of the Columbia campus at Broadway and 112th Street, which was popularized by a catchy Suzanne Vega tune (“Tom’s Diner”) and the Seinfeld comedy series. What was my favorite campus “greasy-spoon” (I attended Columbia from 1992-1994) is now sanitized and replete with Seinfeld wall-size photos, etc., diminishing its appeal tenfold.
That leaves me with my years in the home of the Diner, Providence, Rhode Island (1996-2007). Providence benefits from being home to the Johnson & Wales culinary school, boasting a surfeit of dining experiences. It also has some great diners. I already mentioned the Modern, in Pawtucket, a quick drive from the Brown campus. Just down Brook Street, where the Education Department was located, is Louis Family Restaurant, significant enough (?) to have been featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-in’s & Dives (a blessing or a curse, based on your predilections). Louis’s is a great little place, though, meeting all one’s Diner needs. There used to be a place called Ruby’s right on Thayer Street, that was a real hole-in-the-wall diner with great food and atmosphere but it fell victim to the University’s expansion (as so much of East Side Providence does). There is also the Wayland Square Diner, which was around the corner from my first apartment on the East Side but, most spectacularly, there is the Haven Brothers mobile diner, which pulls up next to City Hall in downtown Providence at dusk and cranks out burgers, dogs, fries, chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, and any other deep-fried delight you might crave between sundown and sunrise. The clientele is varied and sketchy and it’s not unusual, in good weather, to see upwards of 50 Harley-Davidson’s parked in front of City Hall as the bikes’ owners chow down on the steps of the building.
My lifelong Diner Odyssey has taken me to “famous” diners in various corners of the country. The Lovely Carol Marie and I have eaten at the Tick-Tock Diner in Clifton, New Jersey (another Guy Fieri stop --- as was The Black Duck right here on the Naugatuck River in Westport) and two different Silver Diners in Maryland (the now-defunct one in Gaithersburg and a spectacular one in Rockville). In my youth I had occasion to dine at the Empire Diner in New York City, the Fog City Diner in San Francisco and, on a consulting junket to Boyne City, Michigan, by virtue of taking a random exit I was delivered to Rosie’s Diner --- made famous in the old Nancy Walker “quicker-picker-upper” Bounty commercials. When we visit my 92 year-old mother in Stroudsburg, PA, we invariably have lunch at the Arlington Diner on Route 611/9th Street, where Mom always orders a burger with grilled onions --- and is always satisfied.
Nowadays, The Post Road Diner in Norwalk, CT, is our “regular” diner, although Steve Jones (my graduate school roommate, Blind Brook HS teaching colleague, and long-suffering friend) and I will explore other diners in Fairfield County, particularly when one of us has to wait while a car gets serviced. Someone once told me that a diner is a place where you can “order anything off the menu 24/7.” While not all the places written about here fit that definition exactly, they all hit enough of a basic criteria --- good comfort food for a reasonable price and “breakfast all-day” --- to be Diners in my book. As I look back on my life it’s easy to conjure up memories of sitting with people who are (or were) near and dear to me, on a stool at a counter or in a booth, with bright light reflecting off chrome and glass, waiting for a burger & fries, an omelet, a short stack, or, once, “cantaloupe and a Coca-Cola!” Those were always satisfying experiences that included basics McDonalds now artificially markets: food, fun, and friends.
Save me a seat in your booth and check out the menu, I’m sure you’ll find something you want.