*FYI, I pulled these photos from the Internet. They are not mine, and it is my sincerest hope that I don’t tick anybody off for using them.
Where would we be without diners, because let’s face it: We’ve all wanted pancakes at 5 PM. For over century, in fact.
According to the Association of American Diners, the eatery so symbolic of the 1950s actually goes back to the 1850s. Back then it was chuck wagons and lunch baskets, but the late-night hours, modest prices, and coffee-and-sandwich combos would be instantly recognizable to us today. When horse-drawn streetcars were supplanted by electric versions in the early 1900s, quick-witted operators ditched their wagons and baskets, refurbed the old cars, and voila! The steel-plated “railcar” diner was born, and whose image was immutable ever after. Manufactures like Roland Stickney, the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company and the Worcester Lunch Car Company saw a niche and produced thousands of prefabricated diner cars, shipping them whole to every corner of the nation.
But by the 1970s, this icon of culinary Americana was outright endangered, pancakes included. Of the 2000 railcars Jerry O’Mahony produced, only a handful remained thanks to the rise of fast food, and even cheaper prices. Salvation came in the form of a wave of nostalgia for diners and their cuisine — and it didn’t hurt that the US National Register of Historic Places (with some help from the American Diner Museum, Diner Rescue Fund, and Diner Restoration Fund), began listing them as places of genuine cultural impact.
Here’s a list of the 10 oldest true railcar diners (starting with the youngest) still serving the crowds, their steel plating intact:
White Mana Diner – 1939
It’s gotta be good: Even hoity-toity Zagat’s gushes that to go to this Jersey City, NJ eatery is to “wallow in hamburger heaven.” There’s been a lot of work to the facade to where it’s hard to make out the “car” part of the diner, but go inside and there’s no hiding it. And talk about gravitas: This railcar eatery debuted in New York at the 1939 World’s Fair as the “diner of the future.”
Road Island Diner – 1939
The Road Island Diner, another 1939 World’s Fair debutante, has the classic look right down to the neon signage. A Streamline Moderne-style railcar courtesy of the Jerry O’Mahony Company, it up and moved from the Fair all the way to Oakley, UT, in 2007 after 53 years in Rhode Island. Questionable spelling aside, the diner packs them in with delicacies like grilled chicken sandwiches with green chilies.
The Streetcar Diner – 1938
Let’s hear it for truth in advertising: Built in 1923, the Street Car Diner really was a streetcar — check out the headlight! AKA Burnett’s Diner, this historic diner, now in Chatham, VA, originally glided through the streets of nearby Danville before going all greasy-spoon 15 years later.
The Boulevard Diner – 1937
Heralded as the most recognizable diner in Worcester, MA, the Boulevard (circa 1937) was restored to its original vintage glory by the grandson of the original vintage owner. The prices, alas, are modern (but a bargain nevertheless). FWI, expect a lot of railcars in New England; it is their native habitat.
Mickey’s Dining Car – 1937
By the 1930s, Art Deco was the rage, and the rounded smoothness of Mickey’s Dining Car proves it. Opening in 1937 and a proud Minnesotan entry on the National Register of Historic Places, this St. Paul railcar, star of screen both big and small, has been serving up drool-worthy burgers 24/7 for the last 70 years. Best. Overtime. Ever.
The Bethesda Tastee Diner – 1935
The Tastee is one of the few original diner chains to survive, with three locations in Maryland. The progenitor, in Bethesda, has remained open since its inception in 1935 (not counting a fire in 2002). John F. Kennedy Jr., Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Julia Child and Annie Leibowitz all sat at the counter. And if it is good enough for them…
The Chadwick Square Diner – 1930
Ah, the Chadwick Square Diner. Today one of the best — some say wackiest — alternative bars in Worcester, MA, this 1930 railcar from Worcester Lunch Car Company (obviously an apple that did not fall far from the tree) was first owned by Robert and Mamie Gilhooly, hence the neon “G” on the front. There has been A LOT of additions over the years, and the interior is almost unrecognizable as a railcar, but just check out that exterior. The “Tables For Ladies” sign is a reference to when diners were one of the few respectable places women could go to eat out.
The “Historic Village Diner” – 1927
You can’t make this stuff up: This 1927 eatery somehow managed never to get a proper name; for years it was just “the diner.” Anonymous or not, the whatitsname eatery of Red Hook, NY, was the first diner in the Empire State and the fourth in the whole country. Not having any other option, “Historic Village Diner” was simply the best option for modern-day fact-finders; or, at least, the most honest. If it ever had a name, no one has a clue what it was. Dontcha just love the mystery?
Franks Diner – 1926
The recently-added brick exterior and later additions will throw you, but Franks Diner (note: no apostrophe) is indeed a railcar, built by the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in 1926. And with age comes not only experience, but accolades: Frank’s won Best Breakfast and Best Diner in Kenosha County (WI) for 2011, 2012, and 2013.
Casey’s Diner – 1922
The first railcar diners were modest; Casey’s seats just 10 people, which was standard all the way back when it was built in 1922. Size issues aside, this Natick, MA, railcar is legendary. Particularly sacrosanct? The hotdogs that snap when you bite them. A spot in the US National Register of Historic Places was just the icing on the cake.