From its early beginnings as a horse-drawn lunch wagon in the 1870s to the retro-styled restaurant of today, the diner has continued to win over the appetites of Americans. Many of the old classic diners have been lost, but here are some that are definitely worth checking out.
1. Tick Tock Diner, Clifton, N.J.
Can’t-Miss Feature: The double-sided “Tick Tock Diner” rooftop neon sign, with it signature illuminated clock suggesting that diners ditch their diets and “Eat Heavy.”
Saturated with neon, illuminated trim, glass brick, porcelain enameled steel panels, expansive plate-glass windows and stainless steel, its over-the-top disco-moderne architecture is truly a sight to savor. The food is satisfying too, with a comprehensive menu that offers myriad items, from entrees to desserts.
Tick Tock Diner: 281 Allwood Road, Clifton, NJ 07012, (973) 777-0511
2. Blue Bonnet Cafe, Marble Falls, Texas
Can’t-Miss Feature: “Pie Happy Hour,” a daily (M-F) 3 to 5 p.m. bacchanal of meringue and fruit filling. Buy a piece of pie and your drink is free.
Situated along one of the busiest scenic highways in the Texas Hill Country, this cafe has been a roadside fixture since 1929, made famous by its bottomless cup of coffee, all-day breakfast and classic diner menu that’s served up friendly and fast. Named after a blue bonnet, or hat, this diner has served Lone Star luminaries like President George W. Bush, Willie Nelson and Roger Staubach.
Blue Bonnet Cafe: 211 Highway 281, Marble Falls, TX 78654 (830) 693-2344
3. Mel’s Drive-In, Los Angeles, Calif.
Can't-Miss Feature: a 50-seat outdoor patio that gives a great vantage point to kick back, slurp down a milkshake and do some serious people watching.
George Lucas used the original San Francisco Mel’s as the setting for his iconic film “American Graffiti. The fourth in a chain of eight, the West Hollywood location was the former home of Ben Franks, a restaurant frequented by pop culture icons like the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol. Open 24 hours, its eye-popping Space Age architecture and neon accents have made it a prime filming spot for countless movies and TV shows.
Mel’s Drive-In: 8585 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90069, (310) 854-7201
4. Modern Diner, Pawtucket, R.I.
Can’t-Miss Feature: Its railway car-inspired architecture. One of a handful of “Sterling Streamliners” left, it was the first diner entered on the National Register of Historic Places.
The J.B. Judkins Company of Merrimac, Mass., built custom car bodies during the ‘30s and after the Great Depression, it reinvented itself by building diners. The Sterling Streamliner was their masterpiece, designed as a homage to the Burlington Zephyr streamline train. With porcelain enameled panels on the outside and Mahogany wood trim inside, it strikes a dramatic roadside pose, beckoning motorists to stop and eat.
Modern Diner: 364 East Avenue, Pawtucket, RI 02860, (401) 726-8390
5. Pal’s Diner, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Can’t-Miss Feature: One of their 1/3 lb. burgers christened with 50s flair, most notably, the “Original Humdinger,” the “Big Bopper Burger,” and the “Chubby Checker Cheese Burger.”
This eye-popping diner is redolent with pink neon and gleaming stainless steel (even the parking lot lines are bubblegum pink). Inside, it’s a bona-fide 1950’s time warp, featuring classic booths, counter stools, a “boomerang” pattern Formica counter and cake perched in round glass cake holders. Built in 1954 by the Manno Dining Car Company of Bellview, NJ, it’s recorded in the Historical Site Survey and the Smithsonian.
Pal’s Diner: 6503 28th Street, Grand Rapids, MI 49546, (616) 942-7257
6. Red Horse Diner, Ellensburg, Wash.
Can’t-Miss Feature: The full-scale, white stucco reproduction of a three-pump Mobil gas station, complete with a Pegasus “Flying Red Horse” sign outlined in red neon.
Packed with porcelain enameled placards, neon signs, a vintage Art Deco gas pump and other service station “petroliana” [is that a word?] culled from the golden age of the gas station, the dining room exudes comfort more than kitsch. Car-themed sandwiches like the “Ragtop,” “Cherry Bomb” and “Dual Exhaust” draw in car buffs, classic car cruisers and motorcycle enthusiasts from all points.
Red Horse Diner: 1518 West University Way, Ellensburg, WA 98926, (509) 925-1956
7. Mickey’s Dining Car, St. Paul, Minn.
Can’t-Miss Feature: The diner itself, when illuminated after dark, is resplendent with yellow and red porcelain-clad steel panels and a neon sign with Art Deco lettering.
A beauty built by the Jerry O’Mahoney Diner Company, Mickey's Dining Car is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has appeared in countless television programs and movies. This photogenic noshery has even been replicated as a collectible sculpture by the Danbury Mint! It’s open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and serves up whopping-sized portions of tummy-taming diner food to an eclectic crowd.
Mickey’s Dining Car: 36 W. 7th Street, St. Paul, MN 55102, (651) 698-0259
8. King’s Chef, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Can’t-Miss Feature: The “New Mexico Stomper,” a 5-lb., open-faced green chili cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato. Eat it (and a large side of fries) in an hour and it’s free!
This 13-seat custom pre-fabricated unit was manufactured by the Valentine Diner Corporation of Wichita, Kansas, in 1956 and trucked to its present site. Home of the “Tastiest Breakfast in Colorado,” the castle-themed burger bar has received numerous awards, including Best Diner (and Green Chili) in Colorado Springs, Best Diner West of the Mississippi and Best Diner in America.
King’s Chef: 110 East Costilla Street, Colorado Springs, CO 80903, (719) 636-5010
9. Collin’s Diner, North Canaan, Conn.
Can’t-Miss Feature: Classic prefabricated Streamline Moderne diner architecture, designed and built by the venerable Jerry O’Mahoney Company of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
A lynchpin of the local historic district and rated as one of the top 10 diners in New England, this iconic eatery is a flashback to the golden age of diners. Since 1941, it’s served as a textbook example of what a classic American diner should look like. Typical short-order fare dominates the menu, made interesting by the addition of Lebanese delicacies such humus, loobi, tabouli and mjedera with pita bread.
Collin’s Diner: 53 Main Street, North Canaan, CT 06018, (860) 824-7040
10. 66 Diner, Albuquerque, N.M.
Can't-Miss Feature: The "Pile Up," their trademark potato, bacon, green chile, egg and cheese creation smothered in red or green chile sauce, served with a tortilla.
With its dramatic Streamline Moderne architecture, signature Route 66 shield-shaped neon sign and a full menu of diner comfort food, this eatery is a favorite of hungry road trippers seeking to "get their kicks on Route 66." Customers can choose from an eclectic menu of burgers and blue-plate specials and a nine-scoop banana split, big enough to share among six people.
66 Diner: 1405 Central Ave S.E., Albuquerque, NM 87106, (505) 247-1421
11. Tom’s Restaurant, New York N.Y.
Can’t-Miss Feature: The homage to the TV show “Seinfeld” adorning the interior walls, including photos of celebrity visitors, the Seinfeld cast, Kramer’s portrait and vintage TV Guide covers.
In the hit TV show “Seinfeld,” the classic Greek-American restaurant provided the exterior setting for the hangout called Monk’s Diner (The “Tom’s” portion of the sign was always cropped out of the frame). This was the nexxus for “a show about nothing,” where Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer met to sip coffee, eat pie and discuss their latest topic of obsession.
Tom’s Restaurant: 2880 Broadway, New York, NY 10025, (212) 864-6137
Michael Karl Witzel’s books include The American Drive-In Restaurant, Drive-in Deluxe, The American Diner, The Sparkling Story of Coca-Cola, Soda Pop: From Miracle Medicine to Pop Culture and Barbecue Road Trip.
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