A Few Steps Up From Fast Food, and Down the Road From Fine Dining, Lies the Diner
Download MP3 (Right-click or option-click the link.)
Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
This is a three-day weekend for millions of Americans in observance of Columbus Day on Monday. A holiday can be a good time to see new places. And for a hungry explorer in America, nothing compares to the discovery of a good diner. Today, learn about this American tradition, as Faith Lapidus and I serve up a program that was first broadcast in two thousand six.
A diner is a small restaurant. Old-time diners were built in a factory and transported to their place of business.
Diners usually have an open kitchen and a long counter. People can sit at the counter and watch the cooks make their food.
A diner can be a place for people in a community to gather, drink coffee and talk. Or it can be a welcome stop for travelers on the road.
Around the late eighteen fifties, there was a young man in Providence, Rhode Island, named Walter Scott. In fact, the American Diner Museum says he was just seventeen. Walter Scott discovered a way to make extra money. He brought food to men who worked late at night in the city.
Back then, restaurants closed by eight o'clock. Hungry workers needed a place where they could buy homemade food quickly and easily.
In eighteen seventy-two, Walter Scott began to sell food out of a wagon pulled by a horse. He could move his business from place to place and sell more “night lunches.”
People in other cities improved on the idea. They bought their own wagons and called them night cafes or lunch wagons. Companies began to make wagons big enough for people to sit inside.
In some places, lunch wagons were so popular that city leaders thought there were too many of them in the streets. To avoid trouble, the owners parked their businesses on empty lots that were out of the way.
Soon, the owners recognized that they could make more money by staying in one place and selling many different kinds of food.
By the nineteen twenties, lunch wagons were bigger and stayed open all day, instead of only at night. Owners added tables, to appeal to women who did not want to sit at a counter.
The companies that made lunch wagons began to make them look like the railroad cars of the time. Owners thought that a new name would make people think of the dining cars on trains. They began to call their businesses “diners.”
Diners survived the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties. Americans who did not have jobs often ate at diners because the meals were low-priced.
After World War Two, companies began to make diners that looked like rockets and spaceships. They built diners out of shiny stainless steel, and made brightly colored signs lit by neon gas.
Diner owners were always searching for ways to make their businesses look more modern. By this time, thousands of diners were being built across America.
Diners are known for “comfort food.” This kind of food reminds people of the meals their mothers and grandmothers made. Meatloaf is a good diner meal. It is baked in an oven and traditionally served with potatoes that are mashed and mixed with milk or cream.
Most diners serve breakfast meals all day long, not just in the morning. Pancakes are a favorite breakfast food at diners. They are a thin, round cake made of flour, eggs and milk -- all cooked on a greased surface.
Another popular diner food is a milkshake. This sweet, thick drink is made of ice cream and milk. In the nineteen forties and 'fifties, teenagers would meet at diners to talk, drink milkshakes and listen to music.
Many diners had jukeboxes that people could operate from their tables. Someone could put in a coin, choose a song and then listen as it played throughout the restaurant.
Immigrants owned many of the diners across America. They added foods from their own countries to the menu. Many diners offer Greek foods like baklava, a sweet, nut-filled pastry. A gyro is another favorite -- lamb wrapped in soft bread and served with yogurt sauce.
Over the years, diners changed as American tastes changed. In the nineteen sixties, diners became less popular. New businesses like McDonald's offered fast food. The prices were low, service was quick and people knew they could find the same meals from place to place.
Soon diners across the country began to close. Many owners who stayed in business did not have enough money to improve their buildings. Instead of looking modern and new, diners looked old and tired. They could not keep up with the speed of American living.
Diners are much less common than they used to be. But they still hold a place in the American imagination. Several large companies have opened new diners that recreate the look of the past.
Some people, though, are loyal to the old diners that have stayed in business. These people prefer to eat at places that have remained in the same spot for years. They eat at diners so often that the waitresses remember their names and ask about their families.
The Tastee Diner in Maryland opened in nineteen thirty-five. There are three locations. If you walked into the one in Bethesda, there is a good chance you would meet Jim. He is a regular there. In fact, he says he has been eating at the Tastee Diner since nineteen seventy-four.
Jim used to eat three meals a day there. Now, he stops by for coffee and a little something to eat.
Nathan has worked as a cook at the Tastee Diner for ten years. Nathan and the waitresses happily greet Jim every time he walks through the door. They talk to him while they go about their work.
Jim says that the people who work at the diner are like a second family for him. He laughs, and says a diner is the only place where you can find good food and pretty waitresses.
Today, the Tastee Diner seems more popular than ever. Frank Long, the manager, says Saturday and Sunday mornings are very busy. People have to wait in long lines outside the small diner.
The Tastee Diner also continues another tradition. It stays open twenty-four hours a day. Frank Long says many people come to the diner in the middle of the night to eat comfort food and drink coffee.
In a way, not much has changed since Walter Scott sold food out of a cart in Providence, Rhode Island, more than a hundred thirty years ago.
You can learn more on the Internet about the history of American diners. Some of our information, for example, came from the University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program. The university Web site is uvm dot e-d-u (uvm.edu). The American Diner Museum in Providence is not ready to serve visitors in person yet, but it's always open at dinermuseum dot o-r-g.
Our program was written by Katherine Gypson, who just finished an internship in Special English and works in a diner. Our producer was Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Internet users can read and listen to our reports at voaspecialenglish.com. Listen again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.
Editor's Note: This program calls baklava a Greek food. It should be noted that there are a number of claims about who invented it. The word itself comes from Turkish, as does the word yogurt, which is used in another food described in the program, the gyro. (Gyro comes from Modern Greek.)