June 8, 2011

Road Trip Philosophy - Why I Love Diners

No matter where I travel, I always look for the same place to eat - the All-American Diner. It is something so quintessentially perfect for a road trip. You pull off the road when you see the sign, usually a name and followed by apostrophe s, like Mikey's or Linda's (I always wonder if the name is a real person, or just a persona created for the atmosphere). The menus are always laminated but still slightly stained by customers who have come before. At least one item of the menu is always designated as world-famous, some claim to fame to entice diners although they never say how that acclaim was achieved.

The diner coffee is always good. (My friends and I had a theory it was because the coffee pots were always old.) Coffee is diners is not just a road trip staple, it is also something uniquely American. When the country was first beginning to rebel against England, drinking coffee became an act of American independence. When the English began taxing tea in America...well, you know the story of the Boston Tea Party and so on. Suffice it to say that as Americans began to reject tea as English, many of the country's first patriots began to prefer coffee. (Coffee has always been a bit of a rabblerouser. In the 17th century, Ottoman Sultan Murad IV banned coffee because he believed drinking it led people to question his rule. Supposedly, he roamed the streets with an executioner and beheaded anyone he saw drinking coffee.)

It's not just me who has a passion for diners. Movies, music, and television shows featuring road trips inevitably focus on the old, dusty diner where weary travelers can stop for a bite to eat and a strong cup of coffee. There's Katz's Deli where Rob Reiner's mother ordered what Sally was having in When Harry Met Sally. There's Olive ordering her waffles a la mode, because even pageant girls eat ice cream, in Little Miss Sunshine. Or the intricate discussion of tipping during the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. Actually, I think Quentin Tarentino's films have particularly latched on to the mystique of the diner. Most of his films feature diners as prominent locations for important scenes. Pulp Fiction had the 50's themed diner with a $5 milkshake and a dance contest as well as the Hawthorne Grill where Honey-Bunny and Pumpkin tried to hold-up customers. Whenever someone makes a movie or writes a song about a road trip, there always is some mention of that diner in the middle of nowhere for wayward wanderers to stop.

It's not just about the coffee or the mystique of diners - it's also about the food. I love diner food. There is nothing better than a good plate of runny eggs with bacon and hash browns (as I've said before and will say again). Although everyone has a preferred diner meal. For some its french toast or maybe pancakes. Others might steer away from breakfast food (although I have no idea why) and go for the other diner classics like a burger and fries or chicken fried steak. But there's a sense of comfort to the traveler when she stops at a diner in a place she has never been and is able to find something on the menu that feels comfortable and homey.

Perhaps that is the best thing about diners - no matter where we are, they always provide sense of home through a familiar meal.

Throughout my travels, I've been to plenty of diners. Some have been great and some have been awful. One in Chicago gave me food poisoning. Twice. But no matter where you travel in this country, there will always be a great roadside diner with a cup of coffee, some world famous dish to offer, and a laminated menu with decade-old ketchup stains.

This joins other food blog articles posted in Wanderfood Wednesdays on Wanderlust and Lipstick. Check them out!



  1. I love diners. I have this painting on my screen saver at work :)

    Mus(eum)ings: Musings from a Museum Intern

  2. That's true. Most people might not equate diner cuisine as something as elevated as fine dining, but there's a lot of really good food to be found on diners. Some people think it's unhealthy, but there are also diners who cater to gluten-free diets and so on. And I agree, I think that, while diner food might not be a culinary milestone or anything, it'll always remind people of home.

    Black Bear Diner