Diners have been a part of American culture since 1917. They have been immortalized by famous American painters, like Edward Hopper, John Baeder and Norman Rockwell. They are the settings for movies and TV shows like Happy Days and Alice. Because they are often open 24 hours, many movie characters have been shown drinking coffee by themselves late at night in a diner to evoke a sense of loneliness.
Although many restaurants are referred to as diners, a classic diner is a prefabricated building (or refurbished train car) that is narrow enough to be moved on a roadway. They typically have a long counter and a row of tables or booths. The first diners were built by the Jerry O'Mahony Diner Company in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They produced 2,000 diners between 1917 and 1952 only about twenty of which still exist. Sterling Streamliner Diners, inspired by streamlined trains, were produced between 1939 and 1942. Kullman Dining Car Company established in Newark, New Jersey in 1927 still exists as a prefabricated construction company and occasionally still builds diners.
Because they are designed to be movable and there are so few of the classic diners left, several of them have made long treks to their present locations. The Moondance diner, formerly located in Soho in New York City was moved on the back of a semi-trailer truck to La Barge, Wyoming in 2007. The Road Island Diner was originally an exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair in New York then moved to Fall River, Massachusetts, then Middletown, Rhode Island before arriving at its present location in Oakley, Utah.
Diners typically serve big American-style breakfasts featuring eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc. often offering breakfast all day. Other meals usually include burgers and club sandwiches with fries. Aside from these standard items, menus vary across the country, from New York's Greek specials to Pennsylvania's cheesesteak sandwiches or the South's biscuits and gravy. Most diners will allow you to top your meal off with a milkshake, as well.
To get a taste of classic American diner food yourself, you can visit any diner (or coffee shop on the west coast) but to eat in a classic prefabricated dining car, check out these places:
Square Diner – classic New York diner in Tribeca
33 Leonard Street
Between Hudson and Varick
Empire Diner – renovated classic diner, now upscale and pricey diner in Chelsea
210 10th Avenue
Between 22nd and 23rd
St. Paul, Minnesota
Mickey's Dining Car – classic diner that has been featured in several films
36 W. 7th Street
Salem Diner – a Sterling Streamline diner still in its original location
70 ½ Loring Avenue
Road Island Diner – classic diner moved from Rhode Island to Utah
981 West Weber Canyon Road
Bainbridge Island, WA
The Madison Diner – classic diner near the ferry landing
305 Madison Avenue North