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Cultural Relics of the Twenty-First Century
Where are classic American diners today?
Growing up in the West, diners were never a large part of my culture. Very rarely do you find diners, at least diners which fit with what I have covered, in the West. The classic American diners are prominently found on the East coast and Mid-West of America. A few exceptions to this are within the restaurant chains which imitate the feel of the “retro” Americana diner, such as Gunther-Toodys, or Johnny Rockets. I have on occasion visited the mid-west with family, and there I experienced the culture and feel of a classic American Diner. Along with other young Americans who did not grow up during the age of diners, I have found a fascination with these cultural hubs and the revival of “retro” and “rockabilly” culture that come along with them.
As explored in Michael C. Gabriele’s book The History of Diners in New Jersey, the culture and prominence of American diners has not faded much on the East coast. In our phone interview, Gabriele explained to me that diners have been a part of New Jersey culture for as long as he could remember. Diners have always been a prominent part of the culture and landscape in New Jersey, even though they have faded in popularity in other areas of the country. In his own words, Gabriele stated, “Diners have come and gone, and they’ve always been strong here [New Jersey].”
Diners present an interesting theme of the past, of the “Golden Days” of America, and of nostalgia for Americans. Witzel explains this in comparison to fast-food chains stating, “[Diners are] Instilled with a sense of history and style that ordinary fast-food eateries find difficult to incorporate, today’s diners (old, new and restored) are back with a force that not even the experts could have predicted.” What is it about classic streamlined, chrome, American diners that appeal to Americans? Is it the desire for the past, the friendly waitress, the home-style food, or the excitement of meeting new people that keeps the American diner in business throughout the country?
The revisited interest in “retro” and “rockabilly” culture within the twenty-first century allows for American Diners continue to find success. Perhaps, it is the representation of the 50’s within popular forms of media. “There’s been a retro renaissance in the recent years,” stated Gabriele, “and everybody has been kinda hip to this kind of thing.” Is it the romanticiziation of the American Diner in art and film? Is it the famous painting “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper, which reinforces American culture, and continues to represent American Art throughout the world? Maybe instead it is the representation of diners in movies, such as the film Diner (1982) directed by Barry Levinson, the musical hit Greese (1978) directed by Randal Kleiser, or the cult classic Pulp Fiction (1994) directed by Quentin Tarantino, that continues to revive the nostalgia and yearning for the American past and the experience of eating in an American diner.
Despite the cause, diners are on the rise once again. Abandoned diners are being bought, renovated, and reopened. Museums are springing up, featuring food culture and diner history. An example of this revival is The American Diner Museum in Lincoln, Rhode Island. This museum is focused on “celebrating and preserving the cultural and historical significance of the American diner, a unique American institution.” Diners are an important part of American History. They reinforce the story of the American entrepreneur in search of the American Dream to better himself. Diners remind Americans of home-cooked food, American values, the "I Can Do It" American attitude, and the nostalgia of the beginning days of car culture. Gabriele proudly stated, “Diners are still going strong, we [New Jersians] still have a bunch of nice old vintage ones we take care of. There are new ones being built all the time.” With new diners being built, old ones being renovated, and the revival of "retro" Americana culture, the future of diners is bright.
The American Diner is not dead, it is waiting to be found again. Phone interview with Michael C. Gabriele. Transcript in author’s possession. Witzel, The American Diner, 129. Phone interview with Michael C. Gabriele. Transcript in author’s possession. Phone interview with Michael C. Gabriele. Transcript in author’s possession.