40 vintage 40s diners that delighted Americans with their convenience & cozy train car ambience

40 vintage 40s diners

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The weird & wonderful history of vintage 40s diners 

Roadside diners have long been an iconic symbol of Americana, evoking images of cozy booths, comfort food, and friendly faces. As a quintessential part of the American landscape, roadside diners have a rich and fascinating history that can be traced back to their roots as repurposed railroad dining cars.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the development of railroads and the expansion of train networks across the United States laid the groundwork for a unique dining experience.

As the country’s industrialization and urbanization gathered steam, retired train cars were creatively converted into roadside dining establishments, often featuring shiny metal on the outside and a long counter with stools on the inside.

These creative dining structures would become the heart and soul of many communities — a transformation that not only revolutionized the way Americans dined, but also immortalized the roadside diner as an enduring symbol of American culture and resilience.

Dixie Diners - Baltimore Maryland

Vintage 40s diners: The concept all started with the railroad dining car (1977)

Text excerpted from the Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York) March 13, 1977

The roadside diner, that venerable beanery that has dotted country landscape and cityscape as well, is a direct descendant of the rail-traveling dining car.

In fact, the original diners were actually retired railroad cars taken off the tracks and set up, usually near railroad division points, as places for train crews on layover to eat. The cars began to find their way alongside thoroughfares.

However, entrepreneurs recognized a good idea at the right time, for America was discovering the automobile. And automobilists traveling away from home were discovering that there were few places where one could get a decent meal outside the cities.

Edgewood Diner - Maryland

Railroad dining cars began appearing on trains in the last half of the 19th century after sleeping cars were added to trains, and by the turn of the century, rail companies were competing to improve the dining car concept. At the same time, the first-generation cars were wearing out or becoming outmoded, so they were sidetracked to be reduced to scrap.

When you could ride the rails in style: Train cars from the 1940s

That’s when some got salvaged for off-the-rails use. This also was a time when trains were the most popular means of long-distance travel, and when railroads took great pains to prepare good meals on board.

By the 1920s and 1930s, railroads were battling to lure top chefs from big hotels and restaurants, and the reputation of the meal on the train was at its high point.

Joe's Diner - Egg Harbor New Jersey

Meanwhile, the use of dining cars off the tracks had continued to spread, bolstered by the finery of the era’s rail travel and because the roadside eateries were filling a need for travelers.

John J. Young Jr. of Binghamton, New York, a rail fan, said that roadside diners became “a symbol of a good meal at a popular price.” But there were not enough dining cars to go around, so it was also in the ’20s, Young said, that the first diners manufactured for off-the-rail use were introduced — most of them of the shiny-steel design one associates with the heyday of the Metro-liner.

Generally, it is becoming a rarity nowadays to find those old diners that were made of converted railroad cars, although there are still a fair number in certain sections of the nation, particularly the Southwest.

Through the years, as the railroads fell in popularity, so too did the fortunes of roadside diners begin to decline, and the appearance of fast-food chains began to force diners to take on a new appearance. Many added extra dining rooms, some covered up the clues to their heritage. Some stalwarts, though, have remained essentially the same.

Pepsi in a diner (1946)

40s diners: Burlington Diner, Chicago – 1942

Burlington Diner - Chicago - 1942

40s diners: Peter Pan Diner in New Castle, Delaware

Peter Pan Diner - Delaware

Bellevue Diner

Located at Montgomeryville, PA., on Route U.S. 310 – 202

Bellevue Diner, located at Montgomeryville, PA., on Route U.S. 310 - 202

Tops Diner – One of Pennsylvania’s finest 40s diners, Johnstown, Pa.

Tops Diner -- One of Pennsylvania's finest, Johnstown, Pa.

Bob’s Diner in Columbia, Pennsylvania

Bob's Diner in Columbia PA

Cross Keys Diner, New Oxford, PA

Cross Keys Diner, New Oxford, PA.

Mayflower Diner in Washington DC

Vintage Diners - Mayflower Diner in Washington DC

What two days of sightseeing in Washington DC would have been like in the '50s

Ayers Diner – North Salisbury, Maryland

Vintage diners - Ayers Diner - Maryland

Dutch Diner – Shartlesville, Pa. on famous Rt. U. S. 22

Dutch Diner, located at Shartlesville, Pa. on famous Rt. U. S. 22

40s diners: Keswick Diner – Easton Road, Glenside PA

Keswick Diner - Glenside Pennsylvania

Town Diner & Dining Room – Coatesville, PA

Town Diner & Dinning Room, Coatesville, Penna

Fernwood Diner, East Lansdowne, Pennsylvania

Fernwood Diner, East Lansdowne, Pa.

Postcard of the vintage Glenmoor Diner

Located 1 mile from Princeton, N. J., on Penns Neck Circle Routes US 1 and N. J. 26

Glenmoor Diner, located 1 mile from Princeton, N. J., on Penns Neck Circle Routes US 1 and N. J. 26

Fill 'er up? Some vintage full-service gas station tips for attendants - and it's so obviously advice from another era (1944)

40s diners: Lemoyne Diner

Member of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, National Restaurant Association & Lion’s International

Lemoyne Diner - Penna

Maple Diner, Elizabeth, New Jersey

Maple Diner, Elizabeth, New Jersey

Overlea Diner, U. S. Route 1 at city line, Baltimore, Maryland

Overlea Diner, U. S. Route 1 at city line, Baltimore, Maryland

Vintage diner: Paddock Diner in White Marsh, Maryland

Paddock Diner in Maryland

Centennial Diner & bus terminal – Atlantic City, New Jersey

Centennial Diner and bus terminal - Atlantic City NJ

Point Diner at the circle, Somers Point, New Jersey

Point Diner, Inc., at the circle, Somers Point, N. J.

Vintage Rosedale Diner, U.S. Route #422, Pottstown, Pennsylvania

Rosedale Diner, located on U.S. Route #422, Pottstown, Pennsylvania

Sabo’s Diner vintage postcard, 40 Broadway, Whitehall, N. Y.

Sabo's Diner, 40 Broadway, Whitehall, N. Y.

Postcard of the inside of the Tile House Diner – Daytona Beach, Florida

Tile House Diner - Daytona Beach Florida

Trailblazer Diner – Near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Trailblazer Diner - Near Philadelphia PA

William Penn diner vintage postcard

William Penn diner vintage postcard

Monteagle Diner, atop the Cumberland Mountains – Tennessee

Monteagle Diner, atop the Cumberland Mountains - Tennessee


Zinn’s Modern Diner, located on Route 222

12 miles from Reading and 18 miles from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Zinn's modern diner in PA

Funny Cake recipe: A Pennsylvania Dutch treat (1949)

Lesher’s Diner, Routes 11 & 15

28 miles north of Harrisburg, 28 miles south of Sunbury, Liverpool, Pennsylvania

Lesher's Diner, Routes 11 & 15, 28 miles north of Harrisburg, 28 miles south of Sunbury, Liverpool, Penna

Makris Diner – Wethersfield CT

Makris Diner

Crosstown Diner. 2880 Bruckner Blvd., Bronx, N. Y.

Crosstown Diner. 2880 Bruckner Blvd., Bronx, N. Y.

Downingtown Diner, Downingtown, Penna.

Downingtown Diner, Downingtown, Penna.

29 Diner, routes 29 – 211 – 50

Junction of 123 & 211, Fairfax, Virginia

29 Diner, routes 29 - 211 - 50 -- Junction of 123 & 211, Fairfax, Virginia

Vale-Rio Diner – Phoenixville, PA

Oasis Diner - Plainfield, Indiana

Tin Goose Diner, Ohio

Tin Goose Diner, Ohio

Peach icebox pie: A transparent pie made with gelatin, fruit and vanilla wafers (1949)

Signs from vintage 40s diners in New York

Photos from 1977 – Signs for Walter’s, Red Robin Diner, (Unknown), Village Chef Restaurant, Skylark Diner, Bo-Dan’s Diner, Tally-Ho Pantry, Danny’s Diner, Blvd. Diner and the Queen Elizabeth.


Vintage New York Diners - Signs

Here’s what a old-fashioned diner car still in service looked like in the 40s

Railroad - 1946 Pullman-Standard Great Northern Empire Builders - Diner

Searching for the dandiest 40s diners

By Lou Ganim and Richard Whitmire – Excerpted from the Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York) March 13, 1977

So you like home fries with lots of runny ketchup? Good for you. And you like to sit on a twirling stool while you munch your lunch? That’s swell. Between forkfuls of meatloaf, you like to watch curly-haired waitresses bustle along behind counters, tending steamy coffee brewers and grumbling about their bosses? Well, so do we.

And that’s why we like diners. But only real diners — the ones that still look like old railroad dining cars. So, for the sake of studying the dining car tradition, for the sake of sleuthing out the best beaneries for our readers, for the sake of getting the newspaper to pay for the lunches of our two reviewers, Susquehanna Magazine agreed to a highly complex project — find our idea of the dandiest diner around.

Largest diner in the world - Route 1, South Attleboro, Mass

Naturally, our standards were strict. Not just any old diner qualified. A diner had to look like a diner — both inside and outside — to win acceptance by us. Diners are supposed to look like dining cars — the kind that used to roll along the railroad tracks.

Those diners are long and narrow, and usually have lots of shiny metal on the outside with tiny windows that resemble train car windows. Inside, they have a long counter with stools that parallel the windows.

Always, we ordered the special of the day, coffee and pie — often the pie recommended by the waitress. And always, we reviewed only the essentials, only the important things about diner cuisine.

We worried whether the stools were soft enough. We fretted about whether the pile of home fries was high enough. We applauded when waitresses said clever things, and we booed when the ketchup was runny. We were delighted if the cook had a tattoo, and disappointed if he wore a chef’s hat. Only the essentials.

The Triangle Diner

Inside a big vintage San Francisco diner: A sailor and his gal having a meal

Check out the fantastic vintage Solotone Jukebox speakers on the wall at each table.

See 20 vintage jukeboxes, including Classic Rock-Ola & Wurlitzer machines

See inside a vintage diner 1940s (3)

Diner/restaurant view of tables and counter

Another Navy man is seated at a table — and see the hat stand with a fedora, a sailor cap and fur stole. 

See inside a vintage diner 1940s (2)

The bar area

Here’s the long bar with soda dispensers, milkshake blenders, what looks like a line of dessert bowls.

See inside a vintage diner 1940s (1)

MORE: Ready for pie? 7 delicious old-fashioned pineapple pie recipes: Classic ways to make this tropical dessert

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Comments on this story

3 Responses

  1. My mother worked at a diner in Chester,Pa. for 18 years. It was called the Rainbow Diner. I can remember when my dad was so excited that the owner was replacing the old one with this new shiny one. That was because the owner and my mother’s boss was his best friend. This diner was located at 9th and Sproul.

  2. The Peter Pan Diner in New Castle, DE was in business up through the 1970s. The original “diner car” structure is long gone, but there have been restaurants on that site since then. It’s currently a sports bar that was renovated a couple years back.

  3. Really nice diner article but I’m surprised you didn’t feature any old menu boards? The first “diner” was a food wagon pulled by a horse 1872. I enjoyed reading your coffee article. Coffee was only 5 cents for the longest time, from the 1870’s into the 50’s. Twenty years later it was only 15 cents. And of course today you might be able to find it for $1.50 (if you’re lucky).

    I am writing an article on our local diners (Middletown, NY), hence my interest. Thank you…Dennis

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