The weird & wonderful history of vintage 40s diners
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
40s diners: Burlington Diner, Chicago – 1942
40s diners: Peter Pan Diner in New Castle, Delaware
Located at Montgomeryville, PA., on Route U.S. 310 – 202
Tops Diner – One of Pennsylvania’s finest 40s diners, Johnstown, Pa.
Bob’s Diner in Columbia, Pennsylvania
Cross Keys Diner, New Oxford, PA
Mayflower Diner in Washington DC
Ayers Diner – North Salisbury, Maryland
Dutch Diner – Shartlesville, Pa. on famous Rt. U. S. 22
40s diners: Keswick Diner – Easton Road, Glenside PA
Town Diner & Dining Room – Coatesville, PA
Fernwood Diner, East Lansdowne, Pennsylvania
Postcard of the vintage Glenmoor Diner
Located 1 mile from Princeton, N. J., on Penns Neck Circle Routes US 1 and N. J. 26
40s diners: Lemoyne Diner
Member of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association, National Restaurant Association & Lion’s International
Maple Diner, Elizabeth, New Jersey
Overlea Diner, U. S. Route 1 at city line, Baltimore, Maryland
Vintage diner: Paddock Diner in White Marsh, Maryland
Centennial Diner & bus terminal – Atlantic City, New Jersey
Point Diner at the circle, Somers Point, New Jersey
Vintage Rosedale Diner, U.S. Route #422, Pottstown, Pennsylvania
Sabo’s Diner vintage postcard, 40 Broadway, Whitehall, N. Y.
Postcard of the inside of the Tile House Diner – Daytona Beach, Florida
Trailblazer Diner – Near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
William Penn diner vintage postcard
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.
Lesher’s Diner, Routes 11 & 15
28 miles north of Harrisburg, 28 miles south of Sunbury, Liverpool, Pennsylvania
Makris Diner – Wethersfield CT
Crosstown Diner. 2880 Bruckner Blvd., Bronx, N. Y.
Downingtown Diner, Downingtown, Penna.
29 Diner, routes 29 – 211 – 50
Junction of 123 & 211, Fairfax, Virginia
Vale-Rio Diner – Phoenixville, PA
Tin Goose Diner, Ohio
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.
Here’s what a old-fashioned diner car still in service looked like in the 40s
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The bar area
Here’s the long bar with soda dispensers, milkshake blenders, what looks like a line of dessert bowls.