Collecting Classic Diners
Do you collect diners? I do. Comfort food and coffee always taste better served on hefty diner crockery, and their gleaming lines – reminiscent of old Airstream trailers – inspire dreams of adventure on the open road.
Their association with travel comes naturally as the first diners were mobile lunch wagons. Often they were old rail dining cars, parked by the side of the road, serving as inexpensive all-night eateries. Between the World Wars, new pre-fab units proliferated. Materials were stylish but easy to clean: stainless steel, tile, porcelain enamel, glass blocks. And of course, glorious neon, guaranteed to catch the eye of sleepy or speeding midnight drivers.
11th Street Diner in Miami, is a 1948 classic that, after 40 years of hard work in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, “retired” to Miami’s Art Deco district. Since having a facelift, the diner has made cameo appearances in movies and starred in many a music video. The menu has had a facelift, too, featuring menu items specifically designed to get your body South Beach ready
Lake Effect Diner in Buffalo, New York, is another charming post-war original, restored by the Curtin family — who have also renovated classic diner food with fresh ingredients sourced from local farms. I research diners before I hit the road, the rest of my itinerary falling into place around a carefully-crafted list of independent eateries.
Sometimes a diner discovery is pure serendipity. Once, on a night bus north of San Francisco, I peered anxiously over the driver’s shoulder as we drove into a black wall of rain. He eventually pulled off the highway into a tunnel of trees that slapped and scraped our windows for about a mile. There in the rain and fog, under the dripping trees, glowed an old railcar diner. I squeezed past sleeping passengers, ran after the driver and followed him up a few rickety stairs. Inside, the shabby counter was elbow-to-elbow with people all forking up the same thing: five-inch thick slabs of strawberry pie. An immense, sweating young man cut and served his specialty as fast as he could.
I’ve actually dreamed of that diner, the run through dark and rain, the crowded counter, the hardworking cook, the juicy pie. An adventure both culinary and nostalgic, diners are my stuff of dreams.