As we brainstormed about a menu for this issue, we decided to highlight one of America’s most iconic culinary contributions: diner food. Diners, or lunch wagons as they were originally called, date back to the 1850s. Since then, they have become a part of American culture, influencing the way we eat out, the way we cook and even pop culture and art.
Diners started out in the mid-19th century as a practical way to feed industrial shift workers across the Eastern seaboard. As America grew and changed, diners expanded beyond pick-up food and began serving more inexpensive homestyle meals. They also upgraded their decor to attract more women customers.
After World War II, the economy boomed and veterans looked for easy ways to start a business back home—making the diner an increasingly prominent fixture in small towns and cities, serving regional foods along with classics like burgers, breakfast, pies and milkshakes.
With the expansion of the interstate system in the 1960s, cross-country car travel became more accessible, and roadside diners saw yet another surge in need and popularity. And as with billboards along the highway, the diner owners wanted to attract attention, doing so with flashy neon signs and building designs that have made them architectural icons in places like Los Angeles and along the famed Route 66.
Today, there are more than 46 pages of diners listed on the National Historic Register, while some diners are even considered National Historic Landmarks. It’s truly become a part of American history and culture.
We wanted to nod to that with a menu of dishes that might make you feel like you’re saddling up to the counter or squeezing into a red leather booth at one of those famous spots.