Pop Culture Syllabus: Diners


A course in pop culture isn’t complete without a well-considered curriculum. Here are the sights, sounds and texts you need to become a master of the arts at mental_floss university.

The classic American diner has inspired a great many works of art over the years. We've got a few ways to get your fill of the cultural icon without taking a single bite (though we wouldn't stop you).


Between 1912 and the 1990s, New Jersey was home to more than 20 diner manufacturers who made “probably 95 percent” of the diners in the U.S., says Katie Zavoski, curator of a definitive diner exhibit. What makes a diner a diner? (And not, say, a coffee shop?) Traditionally, a diner is built in a factory and then delivered to its town or city rather than constructed on-site. Zavoski credits New Jersey’s location as the key to its mastery of the form: “It was just the perfect place to manufacture the diners,” she says. “We could ship them wherever we needed to.”

VISIT: “Icons of American Culture: History of New Jersey Diners,” running through June 2016 at The Cornelius Low House/Middlesex County Museum in Piscataway, New Jersey


Suzanne Vega’s 1987 song “Tom’s Diner” is probably best known for its frequently sampled “doo doo doo doo” melody rather than its diner-related lyrics. Technically, it’s not even really about a diner—the setting is New York City’s Tom’s Restaurant, which Vega frequented when she was studying at Barnard. (It was also the exterior on Seinfeld.) Vega used the word “diner” instead because it “sings better that way,” she told The New York Times. November 18 has since been deemed Tom’s Diner Day, because on that day in 1981, the New York Post’s front page was a story about the death of actor William Holden. In her song Vega sings: “I open / Up the paper / There’s a story / Of an actor/ Who had died / While he was drinking.”

LISTEN: “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega


Richard J.S. Gutman has been dubbed the “Jane Goodall of diners” (he even consulted on Barry Levinson’s 1982 film, Diner). His book, American Diner: Then & Now, traces the evolution of the “night lunch wagon,” instituted by Walter Scott in 1872, to the early 1920s, when the diner got its name (adapted from “dining car”), and on through the 1980s, when diner nostalgia started inspiring fancier homages. Gutman has his own stash of diner paraphernalia (floor plans, classic white mugs, a cashier booth); 250 of these items are part of an exhibit in Rhode Island.

READ: American Diner: Then & Now (Johns Hopkins University Press)
VISIT: “Diners: Still Cookin’ in the 21st Century,” currently running at the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island