The Great American Midnight Feast
Thanks to a national love of highways and hash browns, diners have dotted the country's landscape for more than a century, serving as little oases of grease and goodness.
The first diner dates to the post-Civil War era when Walter Scott, a printing-press operator for the Providence Journal, got the idea to sell food and drinks to his fellow night-shift workers. At the time, restaurants in Rhode Island closed just after dark, leaving night owls hungry. So, Scott started selling snacks to the local newspaper men, and before long, he had enough business to quit his printing job. In 1872, he bought a small wagon and a horse named Patient Dick and set up shop in front of the Journal building.
For a nickel, you could get a ham sandwich, a hardboiled egg, or half a pie—huckleberry, mince, cranberry, squash, or, of course, apple. For 30 cents, you could get a whole chicken dinner. The food was good, but the clientele was less reliable. Scott's patrons were mainly late-night rowdies and night-shift workers who enjoyed the "dine and dash." To prevent patrons from skipping out on the bill, Scott made a habit of holding onto people's hats until they paid.
Imitators sprang up across the Northeast. Soon, the wagons began to take on the now-familiar shape of a diner, with long counters flanked by round stools bolted to the floor. By the 1920s, diner wagons were everywhere, causing congestion in the streets. But following World War II, when Americans moved out of the cities and into the suburbs, the diners followed them to the highways. Diner manufacturers even outfitted their pre-fab structures in bright, futuristic stainless steel to dazzle against headlights and grab the attention of passing drivers.
Diners have remained a mainstay of American culture, and in recent years, nostalgia has invigorated the diner industry abroad. You can go to Denny's in Costa Rica, or Johnny Rockets in Qatar. Bottomless cups of coffee and breakfast for dinner might just be America's greatest gift to the world.
This article was written by Linda Rodriguez and originally appeared as part of our May-June 2010 cover story, "The United States of Amazing." Today we've been excerpting stories from that piece.