For the best milkshakes, burgers and pies, there’s nowhere better than a diner.
Imagine trying to explain a diner to someone who’s never eaten in one. It’s like a restaurant, but not quite; like a cafe, but not quite; like a bistro; but not quite. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of plopping down on a stool at the countertop for a milkshake, here’s what makes a diner a diner: They’re inexpensive, casual, open late (often around the clock), and serve a menu chock-full of all-American classics with a side of nostalgia.
That nostalgia comes from the fact that diners have been part of the American experience since the late 1800s. According to the American Diner Museum, back then, men started selling sandwiches out of horse drawn carriages, and pretty quickly, companies were manufacturing made-for-purpose modified carriages with counters and stools, so customers could eat inside. By the 1920s, the old-fashioned horse-drawn cart gave way to the railway car, and the modern-day diner was born.
Throughout the decades, design in diners has followed trends. In the '50s, the space race meant neon rockets and stainless steel countertops. In the '60s, Mediterranean and neoclassical styles became popular as diners fought to maintain customers’ interest while fast food gained popularity.
It clearly worked: Fast food stuck around, but diners did, too. Sure, fast food restaurants are ubiquitous and inexpensive, but so are diners. Even the predictability of fast food can’t compete. You always know what you’re getting when you pull up to the drive-thru of a chain, but diners offer similar menus everywhere, with the chance of much better food. No matter where you are, you can count on hot coffee with a tiny pitcher of milk. The menu will always be long (and arrive on your table in a folded plastic sleeve) and chances are it will include a short stack of buttermilk pancakes with a scoop of melting butter on top, chicken and biscuits, smothered in gravy, and an oversized hamburger with chunky fries and a small side salad. Whether you’ve gone for pancakes or the burger, your condiments (maple syrup and Heinz ketchup, respectively) will be sitting on the table already.
Diners have cemented themselves in American culture, and these days, they’re an attraction in and of themselves. And while many are good, some are absolutely great. To determine the 25 best diners in the country, Yelp ranked businesses in the diner category, excluding large chains. “Best,” according to Yelp, is based on an algorithm that looks both at the number of reviews and star ratings. No more than two diners per state can make the list in order to ensure geographic diversity.
Whether you’re sliding into a booth for breakfast or pulling off the highway for a midnight snack, keep an eye out for these excellent establishments.