My love affair with diners dates back to my early childhood, where, in South Fairmount in Cincinnati, Ohio, there once 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, that 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). Whenever I am visiting my hometown, my nephew and his wife and I enjoy 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 into permanent restaurants converted many of the discarded trolley cars.
Before long, 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.
One of the most interesting stories I’ve discovered about pre-fab diners is the Valentine Diners. These pre-fabricated diners were built in Wichita, Kansas, after World War II, and were numbered and leased across the country to meet the postwar demand for fast food. Vets returning from World War II were interested in a small business they could invest in – and it was the kind of business that was often family operated; everyone in the family helped keep it going and they often kept their diners open 24 hours a day to get the maximum amount of business.
Valentine Diners were made of aluminum and were built in 7 or 9 stool sizes. They were leased complete with stainless fixtures behind the counter and a payment box next to the door where the leaseholder could deposit the first 50 cents he made each day as rental money. Once a month, the Valentine man came and unlocked the deposit box to take out the money. If the amount of money in the deposit box were short, the tiny restaurant would be quickly closed down.
Marian Clark, author of “THE ROUTE 66 COOKBOOK” tells the story of the Valentine Diners and says that, (at least as of 1993), there are two Valentine Diners still in existence in Winslow, Arizona. One of these is on 2nd Street in Winslow and Irene, the woman who runs the diner, remembers when it was moved to Winslow in 1947. Irene’s was called the Highway Diner back then and did a thriving business along route 66.
The other Valentine Diner was originally called the Birth Place Diner because it was located on the site of Winslow’s first dwelling. On top of the diner was a miniature stock, in honor of its historic location.
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 1930s also brought new construction materials such as Formica, glass blocks and stainless steel.
Sharon O’Connor offers a short history of the invention of Formica, which began to appear in diners in the mid-1930s. (I have to digress a moment and tell you—my father worked at Formica, as a tool-and-die maker, for many years, starting out before I was born, until he retired in the 1970s. When I was a little girl, I thought Dad worked for a man named Mica, because he worked “for Mica”}. Now, I learn in Sharon O’Connor’s book, “the name of the material comes from ‘for mica’ that is, used in place for mica, and it was first used to insulate industrial products from oils and acids…” By 1940, when a cigarette-proof Formica became available, it was the material of choice for diner countertops.
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!
We should also put in a word about jukeboxes; as everybody knows, jukeboxes and diners go together like ham and eggs, milk and cookies, chips and dip. The jukebox had its beginnings in the early 1900s, when a coin mechanism was added to the phonograph. Soon after, a mechanism was created to accommodate multiple records. Most of these early systems played the records sequentially, just like a coin operated music box or player piano. The real beginning of the modern jukebox occurred in the early 1930s when the perfection of the selection mechanism allowed listeners to select the record they wanted to hear. In the 1940s, jukeboxes played 24 records, contained illuminated plastics and were designed with round tops. As you might imagine, those jukeboxes are highly collectible today.
I think the history of the word juke is equally fascinating. The term juke joint actually precedes jukebox. The words juke and jook are both corruptions of the ancient Elizabethan word jouk and originated in the western part of Africa. It meant to dance or to act wildly in the evening after a long hard day in the cotton fields. The small cafes and public houses reserved for blacks only in the southern states were usually named jukes or juke joints.
After coin-operated phonographs began to be installed in the jukes or joints, the term jukebox came into being and began to spread throughout the country. However, the words juke-joint and jukebox were for many years considered to be “black” terms and were not accepted by the white population or accepted in official vocabulary until the late 30s or early 40s.
Just before WW2, manufacturers of the jukeboxes came up with the bright idea of making wireless (remote controlled) wall boxes. These were miniature jukeboxes mounted on the wall at booths (I even have a cookie jar shaped like one of those wall boxes). For a quarter, you could choose five songs (or even play the same thing over and over again, if you were so inclined, as my friends and I sometimes were).
Researching the subject on the Internet, one writer explained that the idea was good and most of the time the wall boxes worked pretty well. The only problem was that if the place had an excess of electrical equipment, sometimes the jukebox would take off by itself and play a record without any money being dropped into the slot.
A big shiny, colorful, Wurlitzer jukebox was usually somewhere in the diner as well.
Diners, I discovered, have their own “lunch counter lingo”. This is a sort of shorthand slang used between serves 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 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
*One of the bonuses of Richard Gutman’s “AMERICAN DINER, THEN & NOW” is a directory of diners still in existence at the time the book went to press. Gutman suggests, “Once you’ve found a diner you like, ask the owner where there are others like it. Chancs are he’ll tell you about one, which might not be on the list. And by all means, if you find a good one I’ve missed, let me know.”
Happy cooking! Happy cookbook collecting!