Americans have always worshipped mobility, and regardless of their mode of travel, food has always been part of that love affair with the open road.
I can still remember the first “hamburger” I ever had. I must have been all of four years old, and I can still to this day picture the immensity of that juicy sandwich made of oven-fresh buns filled with a steak-like wedge of beef topped with a thick slice of onion and dripping with ketchup like they used to make. We were returning from a week-end outing on a New Jersey lake when my father unexpectedly pulled into the roadside parking lot of a long silver and green “diner”.
Along with that first bite of America’s favorite travel food, I remember well the mystique associated with eating in a real “diner”, filled with the bustle of people on the move, and the smells of food being prepared right before your eyes.
Diners had their genesis more than 100 years ago, and to begin with, they really were mobile, usually lunch wagons which could be moved from one location to another, as the need for their trade changed from day to day or season to season. Because hot dogs made up an important part of their simple menu, they were often called “Dog Wagons”. Often too, they stayed open at night when other eateries had long since closed their doors, earning them the further appellation of “Owl Cars”.
They happened to come along at a time when the women of America had declared war on alcohol, and the Women’s Temperance League seized upon the roadside “lunch wagon” and its always-hot supply of coffee as an ally in their war. Getting their spirit-prone men out of the bars and into a late-night diner came to be known as getting “on the wagon”, a term which has been with us ever since.
Sam Jones of Worcester, Massachusetts was apparently the first to get the idea of installing counters and chairs inside his wagon back in the 1880s. When electric trolley cars were retired, many of them enjoyed a second life anchored beside some busy thoroughfare, and the shape of diners began to assume what would become their almost universal look. Since railroad dining cars, as introduced by George Pullman, were regarded as the classiest of restaurants, businessman Patrick Tierney built on their romance by manufacturing a line of sleek look-alike cars he dubbed as “diners” in 1905. With models marketed under such titles as –
The Philadelphia Flyer and The Comet, Tierney promised buyers he would deliver them right to their property, complete with plumbing, booths and “seating for ladies”.
In 1937, these streamlined roadside diners were attracting more than a million patrons every day, actually hitting their height of popularity in the post war year of 1948.
Times have changed, and the age of the golden arches has largely erased these silvery relics of our culinary past. But here and there in my travels, I know of a few survivors, and every time I contemplate their place in highway history, I can taste that long ago hamburger, and luxuriate in the warmth of dining car heaven.