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What Is a Diner?

Diner-style restaurants often feature counter service in addition to traditional table and booth seating.
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  • Written By: Maggie Worth
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 07 July 2014
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A diner is a type of American restaurant. It generally offers typical American fare, includes seating at a communal counter and frequently operates 24 hours per day. Dating from the late 1800s, the diner's popularity peaked between the mid-1930s and the mid 1960s.

The term originally only applied to buildings that were fabricated in a plant or other facility and delivered to their destinations. A number of manufacturers specialized in "building diners," some from decommissioned train or trolley cars. Eventually, restaurants built onsite were included in the category as long as other features common to a diner were present.

One major feature of a diner is the style and type of food. Many diners serve a variety of breakfast foods at any hour of the day. Common fare includes scrambled eggs, pancakes, burgers, sandwiches, pie and the like. Prices are traditionally quite reasonable and specials of the day are common.

Interior and exterior décor varies. A diner is often much longer than it is wide or is almost perfectly square. In the 1950s, stainless steel exteriors with extensive neon signage were common. Prefabricated diners are often distinguishable by the steel ramp leading to the door. Interior décor is usually minimal, with dishes and serving pieces being utilitarian in design.

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A diner may have booths, tables or a combination of the two. In almost all diners, however, extensive counter seating is available. Such seating is often at standard table height and features fixed, backless stools. The counter may, however, be placed at traditional bar height and might feature stools with backs or movable chairs.

Many diners also feature a pass-through window between the kitchen and service areas behind the counter. Service is usually quick, and food quality varies. Additionally, the presence of a jukebox is not unusual.

Servers at these establishments often follow one of two distinct traditions. They may be friendly, quick to recognize regular customers and eager to remember their likes and dislikes. Those who follow the other tradition, however, may be intentionally brusque, impatient or downright rude.

Originally, this restaurant style was created to cater to factory workers, who often worked non-traditional shifts. This was the reason for 24-hour service. Over time, diners became popular roadside options for travelers as well. While many diners still operate 24/7, some are now open only from early morning to mid-afternoon.

The American diner goes by many names. It may be variously called a "lunch wagon," "hash house," or "greasy spoon." Fanciers have contributed to the popularity of television documentaries and books about the role of the diner in American restaurant history and to guidebooks designed to help travelers find genuine diners throughout the country.

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