At chef Patrick Acuña's diner, patrons sit elbow-to-elbow on stools along the bright-red Formica bar. While the setup is familiar, the menu pushes the boundaries of diner food—serving fried chicken in a sushi roll.
Roll On Sushi Diner is doing its part to keep Austin, TX, weird and has won over locals since opening in 2011. It’s just one example of the evolution of the diner, which began as a prefab stainless-steel dining car (circa 1872 in Providence, RI) serving burgers and blue-plate specials and was immortalized by painter Edward Hopper as a late-night refuge. These days, the diner is going gourmet, as critically acclaimed chefs spice up classic American dishes with Asian, Mexican, and other artisanal flavors.
Owner and pit master Chad Harris takes a Slow Food approach at the Fremont Diner in Sonoma, sourcing ingredients from the farm, orchard, and chicken coop out back for comfort foods like shrimp and grits with house-made sausages. The reclaimed-wood bar, vintage metal stools, and screened-in porch make this an attractive place to polish off a slice of fried pie and a bottle of local wine—and that inviting nature is an enduring part of the diner’s DNA.
“A diner is a gathering place for regulars and strangers, where all are welcome,” says Richard Gutman, author of American Diner: Then & Now and curator of Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales University Culinary Arts Museum. “You can go in shorts and a tee or in a tux after the prom. You also feel like you can talk to the person you’re rubbing elbows with at the counter, and that’s not only to ask her to pass the ketchup.”
That kind of anything-goes attitude, and 24/7 service, draws folks out of bars and into the leather booths of the Bowery Diner on New York’s Lower East Side. The signature burger comes with pastrami that’s brined and smoked in house. Purists will balk at some of these fancy touches and the higher-than-Denny’s prices. But a round of the Bowery Diner’s habit-forming milk shakes—in creative flavors like cheesecake and lemon meringue, spiked, and topped with cream—should brighten the mood.
All quibbling aside, everyone loves a good diner, whether greasy spoon or gourmet. Here are our picks for the coolest old-meets-new diners.