NYC Impressions – the American Diner cannot die

This was the only grey day I had in New York City. I was just in Washington Square when some drops of rain – what was after all a false alarm – reached my forehead and my stomach immediately started complaining, as if on cue. No food had been received in a while. Indeed, I had only had some digestive biscuits for breakfast and black coffee and that had been a few hours ago. I pulled my phone and opened Google Maps. There was a diner just six minutes from where I was, with good reviews. It was just past 10am. And I could definitely have a proper breakfast.

This was to be my first “real” diner experience. When I entered, a framed paper announced no payment by card was accepted, and I thought it was funny they had an ATM – likely for those who pretended not to know and still tried to get a meal for free. No cash? No worries, there is an ATM here. You can get it with your pancakes.

The interior was a mix of art deco with modern design. Absolutely nothing has changed since it opened. I sat in one of the booths and was given a huge plasticised menu, with too much choice for my indecisive mind and my suffering stomach. Everything seemed delicious. I decided to go for pancakes with butter and maple syrup. I was in the US after all, and this was the stuff I was craving to get from this trip. “Coffee?” the waiter asked after I said, somewhat timidly, that I wanted the pancakes. “Yes, please” I responded almost in glee. Those who know me well would say my blood is made of coffee.

After ordering, I looked around, taking in the environment. I could see everyone sitting there – on a weekday, at that time, mostly elderly, were certainly locals. I couldn’t stop observing the old man sitting in the booth in front of me. Probably close to his 80s, he was ingesting the same amount of sugar I probably get in my body in a whole year. There was whipped cream, there was syrup, and there was jam. All of it was going to his toast, and next to it there was a waffle, which I could only identify when he removed a thick layer of thick cream from it. My attention was then drawn to this other older man sitting on the both on my right side – it looked like he had been there a while. He was focused on reading the newspaper, and only his cup of coffee remained on the table, which was often refilled by the waiter.

When my pancakes came, I almost laughed. The expression breakfast of champions quickly came to mind. I was indeed hungry as my stomach kept reminding me incessantly, but those pancakes were gigantic! I looked at the waiter looking for some kind of apologetic expression, but I could see was more than natural. Yes, because in America everything is enormous. Including the food they serve you. I am the kind of person who hates to leave food on the plate – and rarely feel the need to – but I had to leave almost an entire pancake there. And it was a shame because it was delicious. This was at the Waverly Diner, in West Village.

I’d say eating in diners was one of the best experiences I had in New York City, something that I was not expecting at all. Actually, I didn’t know how common these were in the city, until I started to see them in many corners. Of course, they were not the kind of diners I see in the movies from the outside – pre-fabricated structures by the road. But indoors it was all I could ask for. And more.

Like many of us, I grew up watching shows and movies where kids will meet up after school in these places usually decorated in bright colours, drinking massive milkshakes and eating pancakes and waffles. And, the best thing, is that they keep refilling your cup of coffee and you don’t have to pay any extra! Coffee is like water – a necessity. For a coffee lover like myself, I was in heaven.

Moreover, I am always excited to see something so authentic, something no one tried to gentrify or make look good for pictures. These places are the thing. And for me, that is enough.

Pulp fiction has so many scenes in diners

Let’s dive a little bit into the history of the diner as we know it today. First of all, what is the definition of the diner? According to the Webster dictionary, it’s “a typically small, informal, and inexpensive restaurant that has an extensive menu and that is often made from or designed to resemble a modified railroad dining car”. In fact, railroad wagons were often converted into diners, especially for those who could not afford to build one from scratch.

It all started with Walter Scott, a part-time pressman and type compositor in Rhode Island. Around 1858, when he was 17 years old he started selling sandwiches and coffee from a basket to newspaper night workers and patrons of men’s club rooms. Eventually, this business became so lucrative that he was able to quit his job and sell food at night from a horse-drawn wagon parked outside Providence Newspaper Office. This was the inspiration for the birth of the diner. Since these catered to a working-class with a lower income, open day and night, their popularity continued to increase.

Yet, when did this place become the definition of comfort food? I’d say it was during the First World War – with the male population going away, diners had to adapt to cater for women, advertising their food as homemade meals. During the 1930s, the design was streamlined and these restaurants were able to survive the Great Depression since they served low-cost meals.

I was reading about this while sitting on my second diner in New York. The Comfort Diner even has its own merchandise. Located in Midtown, just a few minutes’ walk from the hotel I was staying in, it was there to satisfy my early breakfast needs on a Sunday morning. When I entered, I was told I could sit anywhere, as only two other tables were occupied anyway. “Coffee?” asked the lady, already carrying the kettle. “Yes, please” I immediately answer, whilst deciding again what it was I was going to get from the menu. This time I decided on French Toast and a small cup of oatmeal, momentarily forgetting the experience of gigantic food I had had at the Waverly. All I knew is that I was starving, and we all make rash decisions when low in energy.

When the french toast arrived, I immediately thought once again that serving could serve two or three people. “Well, challenge accepted”, I told myself. I finished the whole thing and I’m not ashamed of saying it. To be fair, this was around 9am and when I ate next was dinner time, at around 7pm… so this meal really got me through the whole day! When more customers started to arrive, I was asked to move to a different table so they could merge my table with another for a bigger group. I didn’t mind at all, but they seemed so ashamed they had to ask me to move that they actually offered me the coffee. And this is the other thing about diners that I found is that everyone is so damn nice, so welcoming, and so incredibly comfortable to be around.

Diners have such significance today that during most elections, political candidates make a stop at local diners, where they know they’ll be able to meet their potential voters. And while we do know diners as being a true American icon, that rings even truer when these were build and propagated by multiple nationalities. New Jersey is the diner capital of the world, with at least 600 diners – these is because since early ages NJ boasted of a large transportation system, dense working class population and also many diner manufacturing companies. When a wave of Greek immigrants arrived to the US, they brought with them the concept of a coffee house (thank you!) and more than 500 diners in New York are actually Greek owned.

Hopper’s Nighthwaks, a true representation of the loneliness of a city and the interior of a diner where there is a warmth

While the closing of diners has been predicted for quite a few years now – and of course, the pandemic did not help – based on what I saw, I hope these eateries are here to stay. The reality is that diners are not vanishing because of lack of customers – they do because they have to fight against the luxury developments that are rising around them in NYC, and increase in rents as a result. I really hope someone or something protects these little places of comfort. And most of all I hope mine and younger generations are able to appreciate these places more – places that don’t necessaryly serve the most Instagramable food, but places where the food is there to truly comfort our often troubled souls, where the environmente is truly welcoming and not designed to fit the newest online trend.

My totally not Instagramable eggs and potatoes on my last day in NYC at another diner

That’s all for today’s reflection. What do you think about diners?

Check my other posts about NYC here.

Love, Nic


4 thoughts on “NYC Impressions – the American Diner cannot die

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