America's Best Diners
“When the Dodgers moved to California, my grandparents moved, too, opening a New York–style diner in 1960,” says Harry Rudolph, the third-generation owner of Harry’s Coffee Shop in La Jolla.
It’s the kind of great classic diner where you can count on affordable comfort food like steak and eggs, stacks of flapjacks, and a handmade milkshake. These diner menus often list more than 50 items and may reveal Greek or Jewish heritage (a spinach pie here, a hearty Reuben sandwich there). There’s a common décor too, of stainless steel, neon, mahogany, and chrome that looked cutting-edge in the 1940s and now feels retro.
While diners can be of the lunch-counter variety or resemble Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting, the easiest to recognize are the dining cars built by the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in New Jersey. It created and shipped more than 2,000 custom dining cars from 1917 to 1941. Less than three dozen still exist today.
Melissa Mattson’s father owns one such landmark: Mickey’s Dining Car in St. Paul, MN, which dates back to the late 1930s. “Times were hard, and workers only had 30 minutes for lunch,” reflects Mattson. “If you weren’t back in time, they fired you and gave your job to the next guy. Diners answered that need of good food fast, as well as being community gathering spots.”
Diners certainly pluck a chord of American nostalgia. They seem to belong to our culture and to help define it. Like family recipes and apple pie. Like baseball and Elvis. In fact, you can likely find some combination of those things inside the best diners. In the end, maybe a single definition isn’t necessary. Let’s just say, we know a diner when we see it.
We’ve seen these diners—and you should seek them out, too, whether in Jackson, MS, or Manhattan.
Brent’s Drugs, Jackson, MS
Opened as a drugstore/soda fountain, Brent’s has been serving Jackson pimento cheese and egg and olive sandwiches since 1946. The current owner restored the classic feel of the place to such a degree—teal and white accents, Formica counters, and hanging soda fountain lights—that the producers from the recent blockbuster The Help filmed two scenes here. Stop in for the new Sunday brunch and a classic cherry phosphate drink.
It’s Tops Coffee Shop, San Francisco
This joint is swimming with antiques, from the register—which delights guests because it goes up only to $5.99—to old waffle makers, pans, and juicers on the shelves. The tables have built-in 1950s jukeboxes, and there are larger, Seeburg copper ones from the ’40s as well. The menu is a mix of old and new, with classic hand-dipped milkshakes selling just as well as the recently added stuffed waffles. Savory ingredients like bacon and cheese or sweet ones like chocolate and walnuts are poured directly into the batter and come combined hot off the iron.
Mickey’s Diner, St. Paul, MN
Mickey’s is a registered landmark; countless films and TV shows have been shot inside the car built by the Jerry O’Mahony Dining Company. Saks Fifth Avenue even sold a snow globe featuring Mickey’s. In the ’50s, the joint got a couple of jukeboxes and began serving hand-dipped malts, but not much else has changed. “Our hash browns come with two ingredients—lard and chopped potatoes,” quips owner Eric Mattson’s daughter, Melissa. “You add your own salt.” You’ll also get “salt” from the waitresses, whom The New York Times once tagged as “ornery.” But the syrup on the secret-recipe pancakes sweetens the diner experience, which overall is as classic as it comes.
Blue Benn, Bennington, VT
Marylou Monroe and her husband, Sonny, have been married for 52 years. If you ask her, she’ll tell you she always knew Sonny would own his own place one day. They bought Blue Benn in 1978, offering an eight-page menu ranging from eggs and home fries to a whopping burrito. You’ll find the old diner motif intact here, and also a sense of family. The newest waitress tied on an apron 12 years ago, and in a town of only 6,500, everyone knows everyone at Blue Benn. Another welcome familiar element: the longstanding Indian pudding, baked custard with cornmeal, molasses, pumpkin, and spices, served warm with a scoop of ice cream.
Town Topic Hamburgers, Kansas City, MO
Original owner Claude Sparks’s hamburgers cost a nickel back in 1937. While the price has changed, the recipe hasn’t. Fresh ground meat with minced onion is seared on a flat griddle and served up on a steamed bun. The diner seats only 11; on a Friday night, more than 75 people will wait inside and out. Quaint, unassuming, and no-nonsense, Town Topic is exactly the definition of a diner. “It’s breakfast all day,” explains Claude’s grandson and current owner, Scott Sparks. “It’s burgers and grease and sometimes-snarky waitresses. We have all of that.” Baked Golden Boy pies round out the bygone experience.
Modern Snack Bar, Long Island, NY
This favorite on the North Fork is open only April through December, but those months have sustained it since the 1950s. Come spring, regulars flock here for plates of lobster salad, fresh flounder, seasonal soft-shell crab, and 19 wines by the glass—many from Long Island vineyards. Heartier dishes include mashed turnips and the cook’s roast duck (the fowl comes from a 100-year-old farm just across the road). While founder Wanda Wittmeier turned operations over to her sons John and Otto years ago, she regularly rolls silverware in the back booth while visiting with friends.
A1 Diner, Gardiner, ME
Gardiner is on the National Register of Historic Places, and A1 occupies a prime spot on Main Street. It’s gone by several names since opening in ’46; the current owners rebranded in 1988, choosing the name from a neon sign they hung inside. The rest is preserved: sunburst stainless steel, pink marble countertops, blue and black tiles, and original fixtures. “People think this was a train car, but it was built as a diner,” says co-owner Michael Giberson. The massive menu has room for soups, hash, fried fish, New England clam chowder, and a grass-fed, locally raised burger. Everything is from scratch and, when possible, local. Some waitresses have worked here for more than four decades.
Harry’s Coffee Shop, La Jolla, CA
The grandfather of third-generation owner Harry Rudolph once bought and sold diners in Brooklyn. “When the Dodgers moved to California, my grandparents moved, too, and opened a New York–style diner in 1960,” Rudolph says. The sports photographs they hung lovingly on the walls remain, along with 30 booths and 13 stools that face an open kitchen. “There must be more than 100 things on our menu,” Rudolph laughs. “We keep adding but can’t really take anything off.” That means you can get a plate of New York steak and eggs, a perfect Reuben, or a handmade milkshake—with California sunshine streaming through the windows.
Stage Restaurant, New York City
New York’s number of classic diners is on the decline, but the more famous like SoHo’s Landmark, Viand Café on the Upper East Side, and Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop in Chelsea are holding on. So, too, is this East Village dive whose patrons, from hipsters to Wall Street suits to locals, are all here for the food—especially the corned beef hash. The cooks start fresh daily, chopping thick-diced corned beef. It’s seasoned to perfection and combined on the grill with potatoes. Two over-easy fried eggs land on top and pack in hearty, filling flavor for an equally satisfying price: five bucks.
Langer’s Delicatessen, Los Angeles
When “The Famous Deli” opened in 1947, it was a 15-seat luncheonette. Al and Jean Langer renamed it for the family in the ’50s and began expanding (it now seats 140). When the diner celebrated 65 years of business in 2012, staff gave away 10,000 of the No. 19 sandwich in two days. This monster hot pastrami sandwich starts with coleslaw made in-house, Swiss cheese, homemade Russian dressing, and twice-baked rye bread. The pastrami is smoked, then steamed for hours and cut by hand to keep the moisture. The result is something so popular, you can now order it overnight delivery via FedEx.
Goody Goody Diner, St. Louis, MO
This building got its start as a walk-up A&W Root Beer stand. For a while, it was a drive-in, serving hot food to customers in hot rods. Herb and Viola Connelly purchased it in the 1950s, and eventually, the diner concept took over. There is no question about what to order from the massive menu: Goody Goody’s Chicken & Waffles are the unquestioned favorite. An entire half of a fried chicken (that’s five pieces) comes surrounded by Belgian waffles, crisped perfectly and wearing a thick coat of butter and syrup. This tower of heaven is yours for $10.95.
Summit Diner, Summit, NJ
This old railroad car was made in Elizabeth, NJ, and the original floor tiles and old mahogany are bathed in light from giant front windows. Original menus from 1939 hang framed on the walls; black Italian marble from the same year still supports the elbows of customers, seated on 24 old stools facing the grill. You can order Virginia ham, cut right from the bone, and a corned beef hash that’s a secret recipe. Jim Greberies’s family bought the dining car in ’64, and as a nod to their Greek heritage, the menu features a mean plate of spinach pie and moussaka.
Historic Village Diner, Red Hook, NY
When Arleen Harkins and her husband purchased this Red Hook diner in 1983, she immediately began a successful campaign to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The structure dates back to the ’30s and looks frozen in time, even if dishes include ahi tuna in a sesame ginger sauce. “I like to be creative,” explains Harkins. “We have preserved the décor, but as for the menu, when we find something fun to do, we will put it out there.” The most creative special? A bread-bowl Reuben soup, complete with sauerkraut, Swiss, corned beef, and mustard.
Gilley’s PM Lunch, Portsmouth, NH
Gilley’s could be called one of the original food trucks. In the mid-1900s, the wheeled cart was pulled into Portsmouth’s square daily by a horse and then a tractor. While it has since found permanent digs (with eight barstools and outside seating for hundreds), gourmet hot dogs continue to be a staple. “We still grill the same local Schultz hot dogs,” says current owner Steve Kennedy. “It’s a beef pork and veal blend with the original toppings of ketchup, mustard, relish, and onions.” Another classic: its three-ounce hamburger patty, which comes with a small steamed bun—no lettuce, no tomato, no fuss.
Slim Goodies Diner, New Orleans
There’s that evocative allure of red vinyl and the shine of chrome and steel in sunlight. The smell of a thick, three-count stack of pancakes draws you in, and the classic tunes keep you seated long after you’re done. At this spot in the Big Easy, you’ll find every type of customer, from French Quarter musicians to families visiting from far-off cities. The menu nods to notable characters like blues singer Robert Johnson and his namesake burger with bacon and blue cheese. Area journalists applauded Slim’s efforts post Katrina, when the diner fed hundreds sans power.
Wright’s Dairy Rite, Staunton, VA
Forester Wright wanted to buy a Dairy Queen back in the 1950s. When that deal fell through, he opened Wright’s Dairy Rite, naming and decorating it a tad too similar to the national chain. Dairy Queen sued him, but thanks to some tenacity and hometown love, he won. “My grandfather opened this spot selling strictly ice cream,” says Jim Cash, current general manager. “He was really intuitive about trends, and in the late ’50s, he added a food menu and a drive-in.” If you stop in today, ask for the Super Burger: two patties, shredded lettuce, and special sauce. You can order it from the same drive-up speakers that Wright installed in the ’60s.
Wellsboro Diner, Wellsboro, PA
Show up hungry at 19 Main St., where this diner is known for a heaping plate of hot roast beef with a side of fluffy, heavily buttered mashed potatoes (all for $12.99). The antique dining car features the original tile floors and deep, inviting four-person booths along front windows; a signature curved ceiling dates back to 1939. There’s a love of the diner culture here—evident on the walls of the attached gift shop, which are lined with photos of similar institutions from across America. (570) 724-3992.
Loveless Café, Nashville
Dedication is waking up at 3 a.m. to cook from-scratch, southern fare for the masses. The staff at Loveless have been at it for nearly 60 years, turning out fluffy omelettes, fried chicken livers, grilled catfish, and their famous biscuits—made from a recipe that’s never been written down, but rather passed orally from one baker to the next. Eating here is akin to stepping into your grandmother’s kitchen. Outside, kids can play games of lawn Jenga or cornhole, and adults can peruse the adjacent shops that make up what were once rooms at the Loveless Motel.
Big Al’s Diner, Cleveland
In 2009, Big Al’s was featured on the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate. But locals knew long beforehand about “magic on a plate,” a.k.a. Al’s spicy corned beef hash, with lightly grilled green peppers and a grand helping of potatoes. With massive sandwiches too big to fit in your mouth, thick-cut fries, and omelettes that would feed two people easily, Big Al’s is certainly big. Booths are the shade of French’s yellow mustard, while a simple white, no-frills sign outside announces the daily specials. 12600 Larchmere Blvd.; (216) 791-8550.
Highland Park Diner, Rochester, NY
This vintage car, the sole existing diner made by the Orleans Company, dates back to 1948. It began as a diner, but was repurposed in 1977 as an off-site betting parlor for horse racing. Robert Malley purchased it nine years later, made renovations, and began serving food again. Patrons sit atop 19 stools, bathed in the glow of red neon piping along the curved ceiling, and order from a menu of comfort foods like homemade mashed potatoes and slices of hot apple pie. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, they’ve got you covered, from chocolate chip pancakes to old-fashioned milkshakes, with the day’s flavors listed on the specialty board.
Sid’s Diner, El Reno, OK
The onion-fried burger was born in El Reno during the Great Depression when beef was scarce. People would thinly slice onions—approximately twice the weight of the meat—mash them into the beef to create a heavier patty, then toss them on a flat-top griddle. You’ll still find that recipe at Sid’s, which opened more than 25 years ago. You can also try the Coney Island, a hot dog slathered in homemade super-fine slaw. “That recipe also dates back to the Depression,” says Adam Hall, son of the owner Marty. “It’s so popular, we go through 35 gallons of it a week.”
Ruth’s Diner, Salt Lake City
“We call our best seller Mile High Biscuits, because they are about four inches high,” says current owner Erik Nelson. “We serve them with everything on the menu.” He and his wife, Tracy, purchased Ruth’s in 2007, but Nelson worked there long before. The diner is also known for live music five nights a week, Thursday barbecues in summer, a massive outdoor patio, and a brunch so unstoppable that it averages 1,000 customers on Saturdays. Ruth herself is remembered for her keen business sense, converting a 1916 trolley car into a hamburger joint in downtown Salt Lake in 1930.
Florida Avenue Grill, Washington, D.C.
It's our guess that a lot of political deals have been discussed at this venerable house of hotcakes and country ham. The breakfasts are renowned, as are the clientele, who often don their Sunday best, heading here for a post-church brunch. Florida Avenue Grill also plates a great meat-and-three dinner, be it traditional meatloaf or super southern chitterlings. Lacey C. Wilson Jr. has been running the show for more than 30 years, inheriting the operation from his parents, who opened it in 1944.