Side Dish

Just what makes a diner a diner?

Can just any ol' hash-slinging café call itself a diner? If not, what makes a diner a diner? The legendary eateries began as all-night lunch wagons -- horse-drawn food stalls that could go wherever the heaviest carriage and pedestrian traffic chanced to be. Complaints from the new motorcar commuters eventually forced the unwieldy vehicles to take up permanent digs. At the same time, hoof-powered streetcars were being retired, and entrepreneurs began converting them into vest-pocket lunchrooms. Trolley architecture evolved into the boxcar configuration of a quintessential diner: a tidy rectangle with a serving counter separating the short-order cook from his customers, who perched on chrome pedestal stools and squeezed into oak booths. As demand from would-be countermen grew, enterprising manufacturers began turning out fully equipped dining cars, or "diners" for short, in assembly-line operations.

These roadside oases sprang up in the days when travelers would rather stop for a plate lunch than clock how far and fast they could drive between Big Macs. The joints stayed open 24/7, served bacon and eggs at any hour and boasted coffee urns so big that the wooden floors sometimes buckled under their weight. A chalkboard or hand-lettered sign announced the day's specials -- pot roast, say, and "crow slab" (chocolate pie) for dessert.

Purists insist that, by rights, only factory-built eateries can call themselves diners. The Goody Goody, with its utilitarian white-brick facade, doesn't even try (nor should it) to mimic railroad-car styling. An immense red-and-white sign spells out the restaurant's name in gay, chubby letters. Inside, stools and a lunch counter are the only noticeable diner trappings. An added-on seating area features slope-shouldered terrarium windows, making the room look for all the world like a Wendy's. Call it what you will, say the strict constructionists, but it's not a diner. I'll side with the folks who believe that it's the spirit of the place that counts. But there's one point on which I won't give an inch: If the sign says it's a diner, the mashed potatoes and gravy should be made from scratch.

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