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origin story / culture

The Making of the American Diner

Today's diners would surprise a 1940s patron. These restaurants were once vulgar boy’s clubs before becoming today's family-friendly establishments.
Short stacks and coffee warmups. Salisbury steak and sympathetic waitresses. The American diner has long held a special place in the nation’s consciousness, as a place to nurse a cup of coffee, soak in the fluorescent lights, and eat your heart out. But the place you call “diner” might surprise a 1940s patron. Andrew Hurley tells the story of how these storied institutions transformed from vulgar boy’s clubs to family-friendly establishments.

Hurley sees the diner as a borderland, “a place where cultures intersected, clashed, and sometimes fused.” He tracks the history of prefab restaurants that were sold in kits during the 1940s. These diners—compact, chrome-filled, and ready to serve customers quickly at counters—were usually built in the East and Midwest, and came out of a tradition of food carts originally aimed at factory workers and truckers.

Pre-fab “hash houses” catered to working men who didn’t have much time to eat. They offered some “ethnic” recipes aimed at their local clientele, but also served “American” dishes and spoke primarily English. The “male-oriented, working-class culture” of the diner was one of assimilation and quick talk—and turned off women who saw them as coarse and unclean.

But as the 1940s changed the American workforce, diner owners found themselves in a pickle. Factories moved to suburbs, writes Hurley, and many served their own food. As diners folded left and right, those owners who wanted to survive discovered that they’d have to cater to women and families if they wanted to eat.
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