A Love Affair with Diners

With Fourth of July upon us, many denizens of the Garden State and America will hit the road for a deserved vacation, a weekend trip to the shore, or a visit to someplace novel and new. Along the way, they’re likely to pull off the road and find a place to eat. For many famished vacationers and day trippers, that establishment will be a diner.

Diners are integral to the identity of New Jersey. Arguably, diners–real diners with all-day breakfast, twenty-four-seven service, and a menu as thick as the Long Island phone book–shape and define America’s cultural and culinary identity itself.

In The History of Diners in New Jersey, Michael C. Gabriele wrote:

“Diners host the ultimate American egalitarian dining experience for saints and sinners. No reservations are required, and none are accepted. There’s a both and a stool for everyone. A diner is a place where wayfarers from any socioeconomic demographic can walk in and grab a bite to eat.”

Gabriele characterized diners are leveling institutions, where guests are treated equally and served dishes from the same menu. A boisterous, salty longshoreman might sit alongside a man wearing a pin-striped suit and engrossed in the Wall Street Journal. A gaggle of teenagers might shriek in a corner booth. A family might relish a lumberjack breakfast after Sunday mass.

Nighthawks
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942 (Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago). Several years ago, I had the good fortune of seeing this painting at a Hopper exhibit at the Whitney Museum. This work captures the mystery and allure of diners.

I profess to holding a lifelong love for diners. As a teenager and a young adult, Perkins, a diner chain, was one of the few spaces available to my friends and me to congregate and socialize in our hometown. For hours and often well past midnight, we would nurse cups of coffee or tea, pontificate about films, books, and current events as only the very young can, and even order some food, if we had the spare cash in our wallets. Whenever my good college friend and I meet for an afternoon or a weekend–which has grown more seldom as we’ve slouched further into adulthood–we always patronize a diner and pass an hour or two in rambling conversation.

On a familial note, my father was a short-order cook at Elby’s Big Boy when he first started his working life. I remember visiting him at work as a toddler. My mother hustled as a waitress for nearly twenty years, helping to feed our large family. My idea of the pleasing mundanity and delightful surprises of city life was largely formed by Seinfeld and its characters jawing and kvetching at their local coffee shop. Literally and figuratively, diners fed and formed me.

seinfeld
Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer at the diner. A fictional portray of New York City in the 1990s. The diner was a centerpiece of Seinfeld.

I love sitting in  a booth, breathing in the scent of bacon and eggs popping on the grill, eavesdropping on waitresses bickering and gossiping, sipping a cup of strong coffee, jotting stray thoughts in my notebook, and savoring the passing of time in my neighborhood diner. I count this as a simple comfort of my life.

If you find yourself hungry during your July 4th holiday, treat yourself to a meal at a diner. With the right company or the right dish, you  won’t leave dissatisfied.

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