What is it about the diner that has infatuated Americans for decades? What is it about the stale coffee that sits on the burner for hours that keeps us coming back for cup after cup? What is it about the grease-and-sweat-stained griddle tops on which fat fry cooks sear everything from patties to potatoes that gets our mouths watering?
Or is it just me?
No, it can't just be me. It can't just be me if director David Lynch ordered the same lunch at Bob's Big Boy diner every day for more than seven years. It can't just be me if one of the main settings for the landmark sitcom "Seinfeld" was a diner/coffee shop called Monk's Café, which was also named the favorite location from the sitcom in Guest of a Guest's top 10 favorite "Seinfeld" NYC locations. And it can't just be me if Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," the painting depicting the inside of a street-corner diner and its occupants at night, has become one of the most iconic pieces of American art, even if we can't always remember the author's name or the title.
Diners have come to carry an incredible amount of cultural significance across the U.S. and even up into Canada. People flock to these establishments, whether for solitude or camaraderie. Diners may be to common Americans what cafés were to French and Spanish intellectuals, who gathered to discuss matters of love and the human heart — it's what we Americans do at Waffle House around 3 a.m., smothered and covered at the end of an inauspicious night. In both instances, the objects of discussion were men and women, and the subjects were, on the whole, drunk.
These late-night diners have become a favorite of certain American subcultures—which in the end amount to teens who go for the isolation, even when they're in groups. Where I'm from, Memphis, CK's Coffee Shop will serve your needs. At all of the various locations, the place is filthy, the food is marginal, and the ancient wait staff is never happy to see you. But this is what you came for.
The teens of old frequented another kind of diner: soda fountains layered in stainless steel and chrome. These diners close early and specialize in burgers and shakes. We still love that kind of diner — the Fountain City Diners of the U.S., and even the franchised Steak 'n Shakes. These types were once an integral part of young dating life, and they still can be. They offer a sublime piece of nostalgia for some, even if the food is bad, which it often is.
Although it usually doesn't, the relatively low food quality should deter at least some of the regulars at diners around the country. (For one thing, diners don't normally attract health nuts.) Lynch enjoyed the silver goblet milkshake at Bob's Big Boy, but after all those years he stopped going because one day he climbed into the dumpster behind the diner and found a carton of the premixed shake solution, and "noticed that all the ingredients ended in the letters -ate or -zine, and I figured I better stop with that." But I believe he's in the minority on this issue. How could I stop going to Pete's Coffee Shop in downtown Knoxville if I found out they used prepackaged home fries? I would still go. I have too much stake in that place; I've associated it with too many good memories. I can't think of a better way to spend a Saturday morning, because, after Friday night in a college town, which is the pure and absolute departure from all things real-world, going to a diner in the early morning hours is literally a sobering act; it's such a stark comparison to whatever was going on the previous night that you have to love life simply for that difference.
Although Lynch's reasons for stopping his diner binge are important on some tier, his reasons for starting it in the first place are much more telling of the American cultural significance surrounding diners: "I liked to go to the diner to think and catch ideas," Lynch said in an interview with The Washington Post in 2007. "And what I liked about the diner was that it seemed like a safe place, so if I went to darker areas mentally, I could always come back to the safety of the diner. And," he added, "I like coffee, and I liked their silver goblet milkshake."
— Robbie Hargett is a graduate in English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.