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- 1 2016-11-28T17:27:43-08:00 Cassidy Nemick cf80a2fbfbf26cc0303a79834a26a4cb79a11a9b The chrome exterior of this diner is a common feature found with classic diners, and imitation diners. Cassidy Nemick 1 plain 2016-11-28T17:27:43-08:00 Cassidy Nemick cf80a2fbfbf26cc0303a79834a26a4cb79a11a9b
- 1 2016-11-28T17:27:15-08:00 Cassidy Nemick cf80a2fbfbf26cc0303a79834a26a4cb79a11a9b Many diners, restaurants, and chains proudly display their origins. Cassidy Nemick 1 plain 2016-11-28T17:27:15-08:00 Cassidy Nemick cf80a2fbfbf26cc0303a79834a26a4cb79a11a9b
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Decline of the American Diner
What led to the decline of the family-friendly American diner?
Along with the cultural renaissance, bra-burning feminism, and rock and roll of the 1960’s came the decline of the traditional American diner. The introduction of highways and the rising car culture of America came competition. Until the 1960’s diners were the main source of food and haven for travelers on the road. Unfortunately, fast-food restaurants and chains began to find that their clientele were being snatched away to fast-food joints and drive-ins. By the 1960’s author Michael Karl Witzel states that there barely more than 5000 diners in operation. This small number of diners continued to wain as motorists and travelers began to choose convenience over traditional dining.
Restaurant chains and fast-food joints molded their style and appeal from the previous success of the American diner. Along with having quick service, restaurant chains offered booth seating, bar seating, table seating, and drive-in service. Convenience and choice have always appealed to the American people, and the rising restaurant chains used that knowledge to create the fast-food industry which exists today.
Instead of throwing their personal savings into owning a fully operational and appealing diner, it became easier for American entrepreneurs to, “slap together a temporary wooden stand, throw up some overhead canopies, and hire a bevy of beautiful carhops.” The tactic of using beautiful young women to attract customers was a successful one. Classic diners had a difficult time competing with the appeal of women skating around between cars, delivering quick and cheap food to patrons.
Creating a food franchise is what ultimately led to the decline of the American diner. Even with the appeal of beautiful women on roller skates, and the convenience of drive-ins, classic diners retained an audience with the American middle-class. Andrew Hurley explains this, “At first, people who had grown up with the working-class diner were intimidated by the newer restaurants where they were unsure of how to dress of what codes of conduct were acceptable.” Comfort and familiarity won out against the rising fast-food restaurant until franchises dominated the food industry. Franchising ensured reliability and consistency, no matter what state or city the restaurant was located. Diners, despite having prefabricated designs and shells, varied widely in food and management.
The world-famous franchise of McDonalds started out as a drive-in in San Bernardino, California. In 1948 the McDonald brothers made a daring change to their business and got rid of car hops. Instead of car hops they introduced the self-service walk-up counters. Though, even with this change McDonalds did not stand out from the other rising restaurants in California. What separated their business from others was their marketing strategy of building their business in neighborhoods of schools and suburbs. This tactic attracted upper-class families with children, and young children themselves. The McDonald brothers set a precedent for other entrepreneurs which allowed for the rise of other fast-food restaurants such as Carter’s, Biff’s, Hardee’s, Sandy’s, and many more. Along with the rise of the convenient fast-food restaurant came the decline of classic American diners. National campaigning and advertisement paved the way for the rise of the fast-food restaurant and ultimately the decline of the American Diner.
Despite diner sales dropping dramatically in the 1960’s, traces of the classic diner style are still found and commonly implemented in fast-food chains. For example, the menu boards behind the counter which customers continue to order from today, resemble the menu boards which existed in diners. The choice of seating such as stools, tables, or booths remain from the influence of the American diner. These remnants can be found everywhere, if you know what you are looking at. Even with these remnants of diners surviving within fast-food chains, the American diner became a cultural relic. As Michael C. Gabriele said in our phone interview, “The business really fell off in a lot of ways.” Witzel, The American Diner, 99. Ibid., 101. Hurley, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks, 95. Ibid., 99-100. Ibid., 95. Ibid., 96. Witzel, The American Diner, 118-9. Hurley, “From Hash House to Family Restaurant”, 1304. Ibid. Interview with Michael C. Gabriele. Transcript in author’s possession.
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.