DINNER AT THE DINER

My love affair with diners dates back to my early childhood, where, in South Fairmount in Cincinnati, Ohio, there was a place on the corner of Queen City Avenue and Beekman Streets, called the Twin Trolley Diner. I loved that restaurant. It was a favorite place to stop and have a bite to eat after going to the movies at the West Hills Theater in South Fairmount. We lived in North Fairmount and everyone either walked or took the streetcars, also known as trolley cars, to get where they were going. Buses replaced streetcars while I was still very young. Even so, children walked everywhere. To have an adult drive you someplace was simply unheard of. We walked to and from school, the library, movie theaters, the Dairy Queen, bakery, drug store, or the corner mom & pop grocery stores – unless you were going Downtown; then you took a streetcar or the bus. The Twin Trolley Diner was also right on the street car/bus line. (It might surprise you to learn, too, that when women or girls went Downtown, they wore high heels, hats, gloves, and stockings—the works! People didn’t go Downtown in casual attire, even if it meant walking all around Downtown in uncomfortable high-heeled shoes!).

There was another place in Cincinnati that enjoyed enormous popularity, one I didn’t even think of as a diner until I read about it in a cookbook called “ROCK & ROLL DINER” by Sharon O’Connor. The diner is a place called Camp Washington Chili and the restaurant has been at the same location since 1940. It was just about a mile from our house, just across the Hopple Street Viaduct. Camp Washington Chili was always open 24 hours a day and very often, when I was a teenager, someone would get a yen for “Coney Islands” or “White Castles” and we’d make a late-night quick trip to both places. I think this happened mostly when I was babysitting for my older sister and she and her husband would come home from their evening out on the town.

“Coney Islands” are specially made small hot dogs on smaller-than-average buns, loaded down with hot dog, Cincinnati chili, chopped onions, shredded cheese and mustard. Cincinnati chili is a special blend of chili, originally created by a Greek chef and a “five way” is a plateful of spaghetti topped off with chili, kidney beans, chopped onions and finely shredded cheese—with oyster crackers. Nearby was a White Castle restaurant, also a chain of diner eateries popular in my hometown. Their hamburgers were smaller than regular-size hamburgers – a really hungry person could easily eat about three Coney Islands and three White Castles. (When I was a little girl, the Sunday paper often featured a White Castle coupon—you could get 5 hamburgers for twenty-five cents! I think we clipped a lot of those coupons). Another memory from my earliest childhood is coming home on the street car with my grandparents, after spending a Sunday at their “lodge” downtown near Findlay Market. When we transferred streetcars at Hopple and Colerain Streets, Grandpa would go into the White Castle and get a bag of hamburgers for us to take home and eat.

And, even though Camp Washington Chili has been at the same location since 1940, it’s no longer the same building. When the City wanted to widen Hopple Street, they wanted a slice of the land on which the original Camp Washington Chili building was located. The owners obliged and now Camp Washington Chili is in a new—albeit very art-deco-ish building. The owners and the food are the same, however, (although the menu has expanded). A few years ago, I visited my hometown and my nephew and his wife and I enjoyed lunch at Camp Washington Chili. All of the walls of the interior of the restaurant are decorated with tributes that have been appeared in numerous books, magazines, and newspapers about this most famous Cincinnati eatery.

There are, now, many chili “parlors” throughout the city of Cincinnati, most either Skyline or Empress. Camp Washington Chili was one of the earliest, however and is so famous that the mayor declared June 12 to be Camp Washington Chili Day. When I go to visit relatives and friends in Cincinnati, usually the first thing we do is head for one of the chili parlors. There is even one in the Greater Cincinnati airport (which, incidentally, is located in Kentucky—but that’s another story!)

“Diner history”, writes Sharon O’Connor in “ROCK & ROLL DINER” (published in 1996 by Menus and Music Productions, Inc) “began in 1872 when Walter Scott drove a horse-drawn freight wagon filled with sandwiches, boiled eggs, buttered bread, pies, and coffee down Westminster Street in Providence, Rhode Island. Late-night factory workers couldn’t purchase anything to eat after 8 p.m. when all the restaurants in town closed for the evening, so the enterprising Scott brought the food to his hungry customers…”

A few years later, a man by the name of Samuel Jones noticed some of the lunch wagon customers standing outside in the rain eating and he had an inspiration – he would build a lunch cart big enough for people to come inside. In 1887 at the New England Fair in Worcester, Massachusetts, for the first time ever, customers entered a lunch cart on wheels. “Jones’ cart had a kitchen, fancy woodwork, stained glass windows, standing room for customers and a menu that included sandwiches, pie, cake, milk, and coffee,” writes O’Connor. “The idea of eating inside a lunch cart was an instant success.”

Before long, lunch wagons were being mass-produced by a man named Thomas H. Buckley, who became known as the “Lunch Wagon King.” Buckley added cooking stoves to his lunch wagons, which allowed expanded menus. These lunch wagons, O’Connor explains, underwent a number of changes and gradually evolved into the roadside diners of the 20th century. Curiously, early in the 1900s, when street railway companies were beginning to electrify, enterprising wagon owners converted many of the discarded trolley cars into permanent restaurants.

Soon after, several other entrepreneurs went into the diner manufacturing business and began shipping pre-fabricated miniature restaurants that were approximately thirty feet long and ten feet wide to various parts of the country. Sometime between 1923 and 1924, the name “lunch car” evolved into “diner”.

“In 1922,” writes O’Connor, “diner manufacturer Jerry O’Mahony’s catalog pictured ‘lunch cars’; two years later, it showed many models called ‘diners’…”
“This new name,” explains Sharon O’Connor, “linked them with the fine dining experience offered on Pullman trains, and it also better described the expanded fare of breakfast, lunch, and dinner available twenty-four hours a day…”

Richard Gutman, author of “AMERICAN DINER, THEN & NOW” delves a great deal deeper into the origins of the diner, and the life of Walter Scott and others who came up with the original food carts. Gutman’s book also offers many illustrations and photographs of diners from their inception on.

It was during the mid-1920s that diner owners also began to make a bid for female customers to come into their restaurants. Initially, most women wouldn’t set foot into a diner. The Diners’ early days as late-night lunch carts gave them a reputation of being for men only. Now, ladies were invited to come in; flower boxes, shrubs, and frosted glass were added to the décor. In addition, the menus began to offer salads. The bid for female customers also led to another major innovation. Writes O’Connor, “Because most women didn’t feel comfortable perched on counter stools, manufacturers began to offer diners with table or booth service. By the end of the decade, diners were regarded as inexpensive, respectable places to eat and this reputation served them well during the 1930s…” (It was also during the 1930s that the term “Luncheonette” came along. This had, I suspect a more respectable ring to it for the ladies rather than something like “hash house” or “Lunch Counter”).

In 1928, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. However, diners made it through those difficult years—people still had to eat, and diners offered inexpensive meals.

The popularity of diners peaked in the 1950s, when an estimated 6,000 of these small, family-owned businesses were in operation. In 1962, along came McDonalds and the advent of the fast-food chains caused a major decline in the diner business. The 1982 movie “Diner” inspired a revival in diner mania – but then, in the 1990s, baby boomers became fascinated with the Retro look – and everything old was new again. New versions of the 1940s and 1950s style diners are being re-created and the older diners are being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, a lot of places, like the Twin Trolley Diner, are gone forever. And, one of life’s ironies about this entire story is that now, again, we have “food trucks” that go around to office buildings and factories during break and lunch hours, so that workers can go out and grab a bite to eat—what goes around certainly does come around!

Diners, I discovered, have their own “lunch counter lingo”. This is a sort of shorthand slang used between servers and the cooks in traditional diners and luncheonettes. John Mariani, author of “THE DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN FOOD AND DRINK”, published by Hearst Books (originally in 1983, but updated and revised in 1994) provides a sampling of terms if you are interested in Diner Lingo. Says Mariana “lunch counters have provided etymologists and linguists with one of the richest stores of American slang, cant, and jargon, usually based on a form of verbal shorthand bandied back and forth between waiters and cooks….”

Some of these terms, such as a “BLT” for bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, have become a familiar part of American language. H.L. Mencken, published in 1948, incidentally, culled Mariana’s list, from several other sources, notably “the American Language”. Mencken, in turn, found some of his sources dating back to a writer for the Detroit Press in 1852. Waiters, he says, developed most of it, in the 1870s and 1880s.

Here are a few Diner lingo terms:

ADAM AND EVE ON A RAFT: two poached eggs on toast.
BABY, MOO JUICE, SWEET ALICE OR COW JUICE: milk
AXLE GREASE Also ‘SKID GREASE”: butter
BIRD SEED: cereal
BLUE PLATE SPECIAL: A dish of meat, potato and vegetable served on a plate (usually blue) sectioned in three parts
BOWWOW: A hot dog
BOSSY IN A BOWL: Beef stew, so called because “Bossy” was a common name for a cow
CITY JUICE: Water
CROWD: Three of anything (possibly from the old saying ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd)
DRAW ONE: Coffee
EIGHTY-SIX: Translates to “do not sell to that customer” or “the kitchen is out of the item ordered”. Might be traced to the practice at Chumley’s Restaurant in New York City of throwing rowdy customers out the back door, which is No. 86 Bedford Street
FIRST LADY: Spareribs, a pun on Eve’s being made from Adam’s spare rib
FRENCHMAN’S DELIGHT: pea soup
There are many other terms, most of them completely outdated in 2003, such as ZEPPELINS IN A FOG which were sausages in mashed potatoes. How many young people today even know what a Zeppelin was? (No, it wasn’t a rock group!)
**
“Now…” writes author Sharon O’Connor, “diners are flourishing across the United States, from nostalgic prefabricated booth-and-countertop models to custom-designed spots that seat hundreds and gross millions. Colonial- and Mediterranean-style places are being redone with less stone and brick and more polished granite, marble, glass, and stainless steel. New versions of classic 1940s- and 1950s-style diners are being re-created, and older diners are being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. Menus across the country are diverse `and include traditional diner fare as well as more eclectic and regional selections….”

Some diner historians dispute what really constitutes a diner, however, and point out that many of today’s so-called diners are really imitation diners, or wannabes.

As noted in a magazine called “Roadside”, “if your diner is a storefront, or built into a shopping mall, or into a strip plaza, it is not a diner. If it sits anywhere within the boundaries of an amusement park, it is not a diner. If it serves $8.95 cheeseburgers and requires reservations, it is not a diner….”

Since I embarked on a mission to find out more about the diners of my childhood, I have discovered there is a wealth of published material on the subject! Whether you want to know the history of diners or how to cook comfort foods such as the diners were famous for serving, someone has written about it.

Diner cookbooks are a lot of fun to read and they are usually packed with nostalgic comfort recipes.

Cookbooks such as “ROCK & ROLL DINER”, and “BLUE PLATE SPECIAL” offer photographs of diners throughout the country and provide recipes featured at these restaurants (although nothing quite compares with actually visiting a fifties-style diner, sitting in a red-vinyl booth and ordering your favorite comfort food while selecting songs from the wall juke box. Food and atmosphere have always been key elements to the success of these diners. And, isn’t it ironic that the fast-food chains which once threatened the existence of the diners—are now in competition with them?

Want to learn more about diners, their specialties and their history?
You may want to look for the following:

“ROCK & ROLL DINER” by Sharon O’Connor, published 1996 by Menus and Music Productions, Inc.
“BLUE PLATE SPECIAL/THE AMERICAN DINER COOKBOOK” by Elizabeth McKeon and Linda Everett, published 1996 by Cumberland House Publishing Inc.,
“THE STREAMLINER DINER COOKBOOK” by Irene Clark, Liz Matteson, Alexandra Rust, Judith Weinstock, published by Ten Speed Press, 1990.
“DINER” by Diane Rossen Worthington, published 1995 by Sunset Publishing Corporation
“THE ROUTE 66 COOKBOOK” by Marian Clark, published 1993 by Council Oak Books
“AMERICAN DINER, THEN & NOW” by Richard J.S. Gutman, the John Hopkins University Press, paperback edition 2000 *
“RETRO DINER/COMFORT FOOD FROM THE AMERICAN ROADSIDE” by Linda Everett, published 2002 by Collectors Press, Inc.
“DINERS/AMERICAN RETRO” published by Sourcebooks, Inc.
“WHAT’S COOKING AT MOODY’S DINER/60 YEARS OF RECIPES & REMINISCENCES” by Nancy Moody Genthner, published August 2002 by Dancing Bear Books…and something for the kiddies, a children’s book on the subject, “MEL’S DINER” by Marissa Moss, 1994, by BridgeWater Books

–Sandra Lee Smith

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8 responses to “DINNER AT THE DINER

  1. richard grupenhoff

    Hi,

    I grew up just two blocks away from Twin Trollys Diner — on Moellering Avenue just at the intersection of Westwood and Harrison Avenues. I sold newspapers in the pate ’40s on the corner of Beekman and Harrison, by the #14 Firehouse. Also sold papers on Saturday mornings at Lunkenheimer’s, and on cold days would go to Twin Trolleys for a cup of coffee and some toast, for about 10 cents! Also went every Saturday to West Hills theater for movie serials and features. Much more to say, but little time now. If you get this, please respond. Thanks for the memories!

    • Hello Richard – My goodness, this is the first time someone so close to home has written to me on my blog (aside from some family members). Where did you go to school? I think you were probably selling papers around the same time my brother Jim did. In 1949, he would have been about 12 and I know he had a paper route. He also set up pins at St. Bonnie’s–all jobs he had before he was old enough to go to work partttime at Durkee foods; one of our uncles was a salesman for Durkee’s and got Jim the job. It was somewhere over in Camp Washington. We grew up in North Fairmount, went to St Leo’s school–all of us (6 siblings) went to different high schools. But back in the day, we walked to Western Hills movie theatre all the time–no one ever drove kids anywhere, not even when it was snowing…we always walked. My sister lived for a while on Trevor in No. Fairmount and I would walk up to Fairmount Ave, over to Harrison, down a ways – then there were steps connecting Harrison with Queen City ave – down all those steps and a few more blocks to – senior moment, I can’t think of the name of the place – they sold church music to different churches. World of Music? something like that. My (ex) husband grew up in So. Fairmount and lived in an old house on Biegler St. We lived in that house until we moved to Califonia in 1961. I can remember taking 2-3 buses to get from N.Fairmount to Mercy high school on Werk rd. Many of the kids I went to school with at St Leo’s now live around Cheviot. How nice of you to write! Thanks much, Sandy

  2. Howard Brinkdoepke

    Sunday, July 22, 2012

    Sandy… My name is Howard Brinkdoepke. I came upon your blog by searching on “Twin Trolley Diner”. My father-in-law (Edison Morford) was the founder and owner of the Twin Trolley Diner (later called Twin Trolley Restaurant) on the corner of Queen City Avenue and Beekman Street from 1946 to 1980. Just recently (within the last week), someone posted a picture of the old diner on Facebook.

    I lived on Harrison Avenue (going up the hill) near Queen City Avenue from 1954 to 1965. As a child, I attended Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School and Hughes High School. I went to the West Hills movie theater many-many times. From my backyard (on Harrison Avenue), I could see the front of the theater on Queen City Avenue.

    My wife (Linda), lived on Fairmount Avenue, and attended Central Fairmount Elementary; Gamble Junior High; Western Hills High School.

    By-the-way… I still have about four (4) of the round counter stools from the original diner.

    Howard Brinkdoepke

    • Hi, Howard! Thank you for writing – its always fun to hear from someone from Cincinnati – and my neck of the woods is even better. Was Gamble the school on Baltimore avenue, up from St Leo’s? If so, my grandmother lived in the brick house next door to the cemetery–for many years–and it was just down from a middle school (Gamble?) that I recall being built. My father, uncle and aunt all went to St Leo’s; my father went to Camp Washington’s trade school instead of high school…I will have to see if I can find the photo of Twin Trolleys on facebook – how cool is that?
      I think we went there most often (back in the days when kids walked everywhere) after going to the movies at West Hills. I had several BF who were ushers there. Tell your wife – my ex husband went to Central Fairmount school – but better yet, my AUNT went there and she is now 87 years old. She lived on White Street. Do you both remember where Biegler Street is? It’s off of Queen City Aveue and connects with…..senior moment – fairmount or white street? When we were first married (1958) we lived in the downstairs room of his mother’s house which was 1879 Biegler (I think, wouldnt swear to it) – until we moved to California in 1961. The house is gone – I’m not sure if it burned down or what. My ex’s mother moved to the house next door which was a lot smaller and was once owned by two spinster sisters. And in the house next to THAT
      was my ex’s sister’s home – you or Linda might recognize the name of Dudley – there were 4 daughters and 2 sons – one of the sons, my nephew Gary – worked for Cincinnati PD – as did his father for many years.
      And I think a lot of my friends went to Hughes high school.
      It’s so neat to think you have some of the stools from the restaurant – I will have to dig through all of the books I have on diners to see if I can find anything else about Twin Trolleys. My parents lived on Sutter Street and we kids walked ALL the time – over Beekman to Queen City and up Queen City to go to the movies. Now whenever I am in Cincinnati, I have to go to Camp Washington Chili parlor (I have written about them too). Thanks for writing – Sandy@Sandychatter

  3. Howard Brinkdoepke

    Hi Sandy…
    Thank you for responding so quickly. It was nice hearing from you.

    You asked, “Was Gamble the school on Baltimore Avenue, up from St Leo’s? If so, my grandmother lived in the brick house next door to the cemetery–for many years–and it was just down from a middle school (Gamble?) that I recall being built.”

    RESPONSE: I think you may be thinking of Heinhold (spelling???), which is located near the corner of Baltimore and Westwood Northern Boulevard. The front of Gamble Junior High School is located on Westwood Northern Boulevard, although my wife always came in the back way… off Harrison Avenue at Fisher Place and a couple of other side streets.

    You said, “My father, uncle, and aunt all went to St Leo’s.”

    RESPONSE: Just today (Tuesday), I drove past St. Leo’s. Every now-and-then, I take a ride through the old neighborhood. I wanted to see if I could remember where the old “bus/streetcar turn around” was located. Although it is no longer used by Metro (formerly “Cincinnati Street Railway/Cincinnati Transit”) the turn around still exists.

    You said, “My father went to Camp Washington’s trade school instead of high school.”

    RESPONSE: Being familiar with Camp Washington, I’d be curious to know where the school was located.

    You stated, “I will have to see if I can find the photo of Twin Trolleys on facebook – how cool is that? I think we went there most often (back in the days when kids walked everywhere) after going to the movies at West Hills. I had several BF who were ushers there.”

    RESPONSE: It was by coincidence that I found the picture. There is a FB page entitled, “You know you are from the West Side (of Cincinnati) if…” If you will let me know your e-mail address, I will be more than glad to send you the picture.

    You said, “Tell your wife – my ex husband went to Central Fairmount school – but better yet, my AUNT went there and she is now 87 years old. She lived on White Street.”

    RESPONSE: I told Linda. It is certainly a small world. The first place Linda and I lived (for about 6 months) after I got out of the military (in 1969) was in an apartment building on White Street directly across the street from the school.

    You asked, “Do you both remember where Biegler Street is? It’s off of Queen City Aveue and connects with…..senior moment – fairmount or white street?”

    RESPONSE: Yes… We are both familiar with Biegler Street. As I’m sure you remember, it’s a steep hill that runs between Harrison Avenue and White Street (before you get to Fairmount Avenue).

    You said, “When we were first married (1958) we lived in the downstairs room of his mother’s house which was 1879 Biegler (I think, wouldn’t swear to it) – until we moved to California in 1961.”

    RESPONSE: Linda and I lived in San Francisco (1967-1969) for one and one-half (1-1/2) years when I was in the Army. We lived in a house on the Presidio of San Francisco less than one-half (1/2) mile from the Golden Gate Bridge. We had a view of one of the towers from our kitchen window. Our daughter was born in San Francisco. In 2005 and 2006, I did some consulting work for the bus system in Stockton, California. Linda and I love the Bay area. WHERE IN CALIFORNIA DO YOU (OR DID YOU) LIVE?

    You stated, “The house is gone – I’m not sure if it burned down or what. My ex’s mother moved to the house next door which was a lot smaller and was once owned by two spinster sisters. And in the house next to THAT was my ex’s sister’s home – you or Linda might recognize the name of Dudley – there were 4 daughters and 2 sons – one of the sons, my nephew Gary – worked for Cincinnati PD – as did his father for many years.

    RESPONSE: As I was reading your comments to Linda and read the name “Dudley”, Linda immediately said, “I went to school with Gary Dudley!”

    You said, “And I think a lot of my friends went to Hughes high school.”

    RESPONSE: A couple of famous people went to Hughes. Although neither was graduated from Hughes, one was Roy Rogers; the other was Carl Dobkins, Jr. (recording artist in the late ‘50s… “My Heart is an Open Book”). I became a Facebook friend with Carl’s wife, and had the opportunity to meet Carl a couple of years ago.

    You stated, “It’s so neat to think you have some of the stools from the restaurant – I will have to dig through all of the books I have on diners to see if I can find anything else about Twin Trolleys.”

    RESPONSE: In addition to the stools, somewhere in our storage closet, we have some of the recipes from the Twin Trolley. Often times, Linda’s dad used his WWII Navy cookbook, which we also have. Linda’s dad was well known for his homemade cobblers that were topped with warm vanilla sauce. We have the original vanilla sauce recipe (which makes several gallons) written on an old napkin. I was able to duplicate the taste of the sauce in a much smaller amount. Linda and I had some the other evening on top of some Apple Pie. GOOD STUFF!!

    You said, “My parents lived on Sutter Street and we kids walked ALL the time – over Beekman to Queen City and up Queen City to go to the movies.”

    RESPONSE: I know where Sutter is. The building that housed the West Hills movie theater still exists; however, the building houses a moving-and-storage company.

    You said, “Now whenever I am in Cincinnati, I have to go to Camp Washington Chili parlor (I have written about them too).”

    RESPONSE: I love Camp Washington Chili! Many years ago (for about 2 years), I would help my father-in-law at the restaurant on Saturdays. I would make the Bean Soup, the chili, meatloaf, and help him make pies, cobblers, etc. AND… as for his chili, Linda and I have the original recipe. Although my father-in-law sold thousands-and-thousands of dollars worth of chili, as far as I was concerned, it was lacking the true “taste of Cincinnati”. Although it took me over 35 years and many-many batches of chili, I was able to capture the taste. About 2 years ago, at a fundraiser (in Delhi Township), I made enough chili for 1,000 people. Over 750 showed up, including two (2) US Congressmen. Many folks said that the chili was better than Skyline. We had none left over, as many people bought what we didn’t serve. If you want my recipe, please let me know.

    Howard

  4. Howard, I sent a response to you this morning & the email came back. Maybe I am reading it wrong. my home email address is ssmith00281@verizon.net. Will endeavor to write a complete response to your message this evening – the day got away from me. someone gave me a lot of asian pears and I have been making marmalade. planning to make pear jam too.

  5. Howard Brinkdoepke

    Sandy… I have a crazy e-mail address that periodically gets messed up. As soon as I type this reply, I will send you an e-mail that will include a picture of the old Twin Trolley Diner.

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