The Changing Face of America's Classic Diners
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the greasy spoon is getting a new look.
By James Watkins
Gaudy orange leather booths with black-and-white checkered trim? Check. Indulgent amounts of stainless steel everywhere? Check. Twenty-four-hour kitchens, friendly servers and reasonable (-ish) prices? Yup. Oversize greasy portions of all-day breakfast? You betcha.
But here at the Chit Chat Diner in Hackensack, New Jersey, the classic roadside American diner is getting a new look. Turn the menu page with the myriad egg options — who knew you could cook up a hen’s pre-embryonic reproductive cell in so many ways? — and you can start your day instead with plain Greek yogurt and a banana-kale smoothie. Plenty of other exotic offerings grace the menu of this “chic” twist on America’s classic eatery, including pad thai egg rolls, Peruvian lomo saltado, mahi-mahi Hawaiian salad bowls, banh mi, fajitas and Sicilian scallops. You can wash it all down with draft beer, one of seven choices from the wine menu or even an agaverita cocktail made with Patron silver tequila and agave nectar, shaken with fresh lime juice. Chit Chat has free Wi-Fi, 24-hour delivery and an active Snapchat account, all of which aim “to create a new take on a New Jersey classic,” says general manager Milena Zamora.
The look, the feel, the food, everything may vary to reflect what people want now, [but] the diner is here to stay.
—Richard J. S. Gutman, author, American Diner Then and Now
Chit Chat’s not alone. Here in New Jersey, the diner capital of America — about 600 of them line the roadsides of America’s most densely highwayed state — diners are adapting to modern consumer tastes. For the better part of a century, the death of the diner has been lamented at every whiff of macroeconomic hardship, and yet at every downturn the diner has evolved and survived. “They’re chameleons,” says author and all-round diner aficionado Richard J. S. Gutman — “the look, the feel, the food, everything may vary to reflect what people want now,” he says, but “the diner is here to stay.” Today’s tastes are cosmopolitan, increasingly plant-based and cater to specific free-form dietary needs. The Pompton Queen Diner, another large, bustling, new-wave diner in Morris County, New Jersey, offers black bean and kale veggie burgers on gluten-free buns in addition to the classic hamburger; the Silver Diner chain in the Washington, D.C., metro area serves up farm-to-table food. With higher quality and more diverse options come slightly higher prices too — far from the cheap-and-cheerful breakfast basics that were the staple of the diners of old, home-cooked 20 feet from your table.
Diners continue to resist one pressure of the modern economy: the chain restaurant. Denny’s is the obvious exception, operating more than 1,600 franchises across the United States. The majority of diners, however, remain independently owned. In some areas, “people who are ambitious” might open a second or third location if business is good, says Gutman, although it’s still “the exception rather than the rule.” And while not quite as homogeneous as a chain, the diner still comes with some of the same expectations. “Diners resemble each other generically, but each has its own ownership, its own personality, its own menu,” says Gutman. According to the consumer research group NPD, the number of independent diners is holding relatively steady against a backdrop of falling numbers for independently owned restaurants and increasing numbers of chain-owned outlets in the industry as a whole.
Nevertheless, economic and cultural shifts are leaving behind those who are resistant to change. By definition, the traditional diner was a factory-built structure that was shipped in several pieces and assembled on site, says Daniel Zilka, director of the American Diner Museum in Providence, Rhode Island. They were small, with just 40 or 50 seats on average, and often situated on premium roadside real estate with large parking lots. As the costs of land and staffing have risen, “authentic” factory-built diners simply haven’t been able to turn their few tables over fast enough to remain profitable, he says.
Only about 2,000 of those classics survive, though numbers are hard to come by, in part because of the lack of an adequate definition of the term diner beyond general décor-based clichés. Instead, “diner-style restaurants” increasingly take their place, says Zilka, which “offer something unique by elaborating on American cuisine.” While this opens up a whole can of worms about whether these newfangled diners are still a distinct breed worthy of their own noun, Chit Chat’s Zamora points to the fundamentals: all-day breakfast, a counter, 24/7 service and a “pie case full of desserts.”
Not all are happy with the changing nature of the increasingly large, bustling, cosmopolitan diner. Zilka calls the trend “diner Disney-fication,” pointing out that “what they’re really selling is nostalgia.” But most doubt that America’s increasingly urban and cosmopolitan population will complain as menus expand to new global horizons, and the greasy spoon takes on a whole new role as, perhaps, the greasy chopstick.