Clockwise from top left: Sarah Crowder; Alamy Stock Photo (2); Betsy Andrews; Sarah Crowder
Admit it—there were at least a few times over the last couple of years when you really missed your local diner. Two years, it turns out, was a long time to go without cheeseburgers deluxe, without giant plates of disco fries, without waffles and French toast and blueberry pancakes and bottomless cups of coffee brewed in stainless steel urns.
Even in places where restaurants were up and running, at least in some capacity, just a few months after the initial 2020 lockdowns, we emerged from our quarantine hidey-holes to discover that what was once at our fingertips twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, was neither. Safety guidelines, staffing shortages, supply chain issues—no matter where you lived, new challenges conspired against the treasured shared experience of the all-night diner hang.
The American diner had already been struggling in the face of changing tastes, habits, and costs. Some are gone, some have lost their bearings, and others are struggling to stay afloat, but there are more—many more!—shining bright like the diamonds, in the rough or fully polished, that they have always been. That's what this list is about.
Diners go by many names, depending on where you're from—cafés, coffee shops, family restaurants, Waffle Houses, etc. They do, however, all have one thing in common: they are the living embodiment of the democratic ideal, with their wide open doors and sit-where-you-like ethic. They are there to meet you where you're at, whether you want a cup of coffee and a piece of toast, or a prime rib dinner. Get out there and celebrate the best of the best.
Swing a cat—or a catfish—in downtown Homewood, and you're likely to hit more than one very good restaurant. Strategically located near the heart of Birmingham, this relatively compact area offers up an outsized amount of great eating, Southern-wise and otherwise. Follow one of the most loyal crowds in town to the modest Salem's Diner, which isn't so much a place for breakfast or lunch as it is Cheers-with-a-menu, thanks to the presence of owner Wayne Salem, son of football-playing, Heisman-winning, Bama legend Ed Salem. Whether you've been coming here for years or this is your first time in the door, you'll feel at home, and you will eat well. While we can think of a few Philadelphians that might dispute the claim made by Scottish-American talk show host Craig Ferguson that the cheesesteak here (sautéed bell peppers! Slices of white processed cheese!) is better than a cheesesteak in Philly, the sandwich is certainly delicious. Also terrific: a classic breakfast of biscuits and gravy, homestyle in the extreme, and the nicely seasoned grilled tilapia, served with rice and a salad. It's a nice, light lunch on a summer day, or any day.
Horseshoe-shaped counters, forest green banquettes, wood paneling, and garish accents of burnt orange tile—this coffee shop, far from tourist Anchorage, is about as classic as they come. For the longest time a favorite of the bush pilots flying in and out of Merrill Field, Peggy's serves the working-class Mountain View neighborhood from morning until late, as it has done or generations. Open since 1944, it is considered to be Alaska's oldest restaurant, and after all these years, Peggy's is really all about the pie. Good to go for another century or so? Let's hope.
Like so many winter-weary Midwesterners before and after, Gus Balon packed up and left with the dream of a new life in the warmer, more reliably sunny Southwest. The avid baker made a few stops before settling into Tucson and opening Gus Balon's, back in 1965. Cinnamon rolls, very large ones indeed, are the calling card here, but then there's that homemade corned beef hash, which is mostly generous amounts of corned beef—sorry to that one person who prefers a lot of potato, whoever they are. The food evokes Balon's former home state—Iowa—more immediately than the Southwest, but this has yet to stop Tucsonans from claiming the place as their own.
There are a few states where anyone looking for a traditional diner is likely to go hungry. In Arkansas, small town cafés and rustic coffee shops are the place to be, especially in little towns like Greenbrier, where the cafeteria-basic Wagon Wheel Restaurant is not only where you go for chicken fried steaks and exemplary cherry pie, but also to catch up on the local gossip or find a decent plumber. Everything from placemats to your sweet tea glass is covered in advertisements for area businesses.
People fly to Los Angeles from all over the world, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of showbiz magic, and they are so often looking in the wrong places. It's in the mostly-sunny San Fernando Valley that so much of the real work gets done, and it's at the Bob's Big Boy in Burbank, a singular, landmarked outlet of the classic coffee shop chain, that so many of the goings-on can be observed. World-weary bi-coastals just off their BUR flights, studio grunts on break, celebrity couples looking to grab a bite—it's all happening here, at this magnificent institution with its seductive, swooping counter, long enough to double as a fashion show runway. Order a plate of some of the best fried chicken in the city. A platter of the onion rings—with a side of ranch for dipping, we're in California now, this is legal—is how you start the meal.
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The house slogan—890 square feet of reality, surrounded by Boulder—tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the Village Coffee Shop, an oasis of formica and bad lighting and all-around classic donut shop chic, but with superb sausage gravy, oversized orders of French toast, and other things you don't normally associate with one of America's healthiest cities. It's like finding a smoking lounge tucked into a destination spa, except this one smells like blueberry pancakes, and there's always room for one more sinner. Order the Denver omelet—if not now, when?
We're talking New England here, so it's not as if there's a diner shortage, which means we can be picky. In Connecticut, there's a simple rule that will help you narrow down your options: the smaller, the better. Take the Laurel Diner in Southbury. There are flashier diners, the kind that call out to you from afar, and this is not one of those places. Tiny and unobtrusive though it might be, nobody who lives around here has any trouble squeezing through the door for their homemade corned beef hash breakfasts.
Shooting straight north from Wilmington parallel to the Brandywine Creek, Concord Pike and its shopping centers were most likely the pride and joy of the Chamber of Commerce set, back in the car-happy 1950s. These days, Charcoal Pit stands as a whimsical, Southern California-worthy relic of that very different era, a swooping, neon-lit coffee shop where you bring your main squeeze for frosted chocolate malts, monster ice cream sundaes, onion rings, and chargrilled burgers. Play a tune on the mini jukebox, order the 10 oz. Home Run burger (a straightforward classic topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and a slice of American cheese), and hang around for the semi-regular President Biden sightings. He's been hanging out here since his high school jock days (a bit less so recently).
Make your way through Tampa's multicultural restaurant scene, and you will notice, the first time you enter the diner counter side of La Teresita, which is perhaps the city's most famous Cuban restaurant, a distinct uptick in tempo, a certain youthful vigor. That's because this place was practically born yesterday, unlike some of the other places nearby, but don't let that stop you. For the ultimate in late-night hijinks, preferably after other late-night hijinks, there are few ringside seats quite so sought-after as the horseshoe-shaped counters at this multi-venue establishment, which has grown immensely from its humble beginnings in the 1970s. The food is good. Who doesn't love a giant helping of ropa vieja, for relatively little money? But even if you're not hungry, crawl in for toasted, buttered Cuban bread and a mug of cafe con leche, anyway—soaking up the vibe is half the point.
An hour away, the historic winter colony of plain folk out near Sarasota's historic celery fields was long ago swallowed by Sun Belt sprawl, but thousands of Amish and Mennonites continue to make the Pinecraft area their seasonal home, and Yoder's has been something like their welcome center, for decades now. Step inside for healthy portions of home cooking, served in a cheerful, diner-style setting filling up every day except Sunday with hungry Floridians, some of them driving for hours to get here. Think big breakfasts, crispy broasted chicken just like they do it up north, and a sometimes overwhelming selection of pies.
A short walk (and a world away) from the luxury hotels and doorman apartment buildings of Midtown, the rustic-as-it-gets Silver Skillet has been repping the best aspects of the Old South since the 1950s. Pile into one of the old booths for ham steaks with red eye gravy and a whopping side of grits—a vintage dream in the shadow of go-go 21st century Atlanta. Down in Savannah, everything's up-to-date (in a good way) at the Grey Market, a modern diner from restaurant dream team Mashama Bailey and Johno Morisano (The Grey). Sticky buns, hash, catfish and grits, you name it, it's on, but all with a distinctive, fresh twist.
Classic coffee shop culture thrives in the 50th state, where they've got their own thriving chain of temples (Zippy's forever) and an extremely specific, endlessly delicious brand of comfort cooking. There are only a couple of locations of the much-older Highway Inn, and the original in suburban Honolulu is honestly the one you're looking for. The menu hasn't changed much at all since the 1940s, and the star is their lau lau, pork or chicken steamed in taro leaves, served up on school canteen trays with rice, pipikaula, and an array of other delicious, won't-find-that-at-Denny's goodies. Don't wake up too early; they aren't in the habit of getting up with the sun. But the breakfasts, served until noon—with expanded offerings on weekends—are worth setting your watch to.
There are many fine ways to wake up in busy little Boise, but for some time now, pretty much everyone has agreed that you cannot do much better than the eggs benny, the corned beef hash, the cinnamon roll pancakes, and the asparagus and eggs dish served up at Goldy's Breakfast Bistro. Don't miss the sides of Idaho's own-made chorizo, one of those little everyday reminders of the region's Basque heritage. Goldy's has room for about fifty people at a time, but complimentary cups of locally-roasted coffee help take the edge of the inevitable weekend wait.
One of the most iconic locations along the much-mythologized Route 66 is actually older than the Mother Road itself, dating back to 1923. The neon at Lou Mitchell's in downtown Chicago still burns bright at this historic landmark just outside the Loop. You still get Milk Duds while you wait for your table, and you will wait; the omelettes, the waffles, and the restaurant's unique, chaotic-good ambiance continue to draw a crowd. Make sure to try the house marmalade, one of the charming little menu finds continuing to set this place apart in a city that's never been short on breakfast options. Looking for something more of this century? Stephanie Izard's Little Goat is a bold, modern love letter to the classic diner of your dreams.
Courtesy of Lou Mitchell’s
Founded in 1908 at the heart of downtown Huntington, Nick's Kitchen vibes like so many other town cafés in the region, but not all of them, very few of them in fact, will ship their signature dish anywhere in the country. The thing here, as anyone with a passing knowledge of Indiana footways can tell you, is the breaded pork tenderloin, a massive thing of exquisitely fried beauty. After you've finished with the house speciality, this century-old joint is, at heart, an excellent all-day diner, open before sun-up for eggs and toast, and as soon as you feel ready, a slice of that other Indiana staple—the humble but mighty sugar cream pie.
The last few years have been exceptionally brutal on Iowa's diners, cafés, and classic coffee shops. Many of the former greats have shed much of their greatness, while others have quietly disappeared. And yet, sparks of greatness still light the way. You'll have to take your late-night shenanigans elsewhere, because the Waveland Cafe is strictly breakfast and lunch. This Des Moines staple is good enough at what it does—cinnamon swirl French toast, biscuits and gravy, all the greats, really—that you'll forgive them for packing it in before the start of the dinner hour.
When everything turned upside down in early 2020, and so many of her friends, neighbors, and patrons found themselves out of work, Meg Heriford knew what she had to do. Nearly overnight, her charming little Ladybird Diner, a fixture in the college town of Lawrence since 2014, pivoted to making hundreds of no-questions-asked, take-what-you-need sack lunches, day after day. By the time the diner reopened, more than a year later, the pent-up demand for Heriford's legendary pies was pretty much off the charts—and for everything else, from chicken fried steaks topped with cream gravy and roasted chiles to an excellent smoked salmon and asparagus hash.
Got goetta? Any breakfast joint in Northern Kentucky worth your attention serves fat slabs—fried crisp and golden brown—of this hyper-regional staple, brought to the region by German immigrants many generations ago. Dating back to a time when meat was too expensive to eat straight up, oats were used to stretch things out; think British sausages and their noticeable use of breadcrumbs, and you're getting there. Impolite bystanders might refer to goetta as grey mush, but true connoisseurs know better. Faced with a well-seasoned slice of the stuff, nicely fried, with your eggs and hash browns, you won't even miss the more standard breakfast meats. Not that you have to wake up for breakfast to eat goetta. At the vintage Anchor Grill, one of the better diners in Covington, the GLT (goetta, lettuce, and tomato) sandwich is an all-day (and all night) favorite.
Once you've had a really good New Orleans breakfast—grillades and grits, crab benedicts, bananas foster French toast, eggs Sardou—it's awfully hard to go back to normal, and once a New Orleans breakfast joint nails the greats, it's awfully hard to keep them down. This has certainly been true at Mandeville's Liz's Where Y'at Diner, a relatively new arrival in a region known for its near-ancient restaurants. A fire in 2019, followed by a pandemic and every other headache that came with it, were no match for the skills (and the pluck) of this sweet little café on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain.
Biddeford's historic Palace Diner is a low-key, fashionable joint that just so happens to occupy a vintage dining car. It's worth the trip from much further away than Biddeford for crispy potatoes like you've never had, breakfast sandwiches zipped up with pickled jalapeños, and so much else. Every now and then, you come across someone making the valiant attempt to turn the humble Big Mac—a fine idea, but typically a disappointment—into something worth crowing about. Few will best the efforts of the Palace Diner. Taking its place on a small but exceptional menu, the Palais Royale is everything you want when you walk into a McDonald's, but never get—two generously portioned smash burgs, cheddar cheese melting everywhere, a bird's nest worth of shredded lettuce, pickles, and just enough secret sauce, on a toasted sesame seed bun. For the same price, you could get four Big Macs—you still wouldn't leave quite so satisfied. Comes with spectacular fries.
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The blame for one of the most persistent negatives of modern American diner culture—that all-too-frequent reliance on mediocre breakfast meats—can be pinned, at this point, almost squarely on the customer. Asking for better, and then voting with our feet, is apparently one of the only ways to get better sausage, or bacon, or whatever, on the menu. Not that every place needs a wakeup call. Pete's Grille, the city's most democratic breakfast joint, brings Baltimoreans of all kinds together for breakfast and lunch. They serve a pretty great pork sausage, and very fine bacon, plus scrapple, that Mid-Atlantic staple. Order all three, and, because balance is important, throw in a portion of the creamed chipped beef, ladled over home fries.
Diner nerds know just how important this blue-collar New England town was to the rise of the culture. Miss Worcester Diner, the city's finest address, now on the National Register of Historic Places, began life as a show model for the Worcester Lunch Car Company, responsible for building some of the first diners in existence, right across the street. Things are very different now around here, but nothing has been able to shake the popularity of this lovable little establishment, where there's barely enough room to turn around inside. The die-hards line up out front in all weathers, very much like their counterparts would for barbecue in Texas. Speaking of meat—get the house-made corned beef hash.
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Ask anyone in Southwest Detroit. They'll be happy to tell you that the best coney dogs in town aren't the ones you've heard of downtown, but rather the ones at Duly's Place, the little diner on Vernor that's been at the heart of neighborhood life—through good times and bad-to-terrible—for just over a century. Unlike those other coney joints, Duly's is a full-service (cash only) establishment. No matter what time of day you're hungry, they're here for you, slinging burgers, full breakfasts, and the like. For a morning to remember, drop by for a plate, then have second breakfast at the nearby Donut Villa, another well-aged neighborhood institution that's typically up and running well before sunrise.
Breakfast in the Twin Cities is a fairly competitive affair, for restaurants and customers alike. You've got to be good, but once word gets out, there are always more customers, which means waiting, and sometimes very patiently. A great deal many hungry people are willing to wait in Minneapolis at the ten-foot-wide Al's Breakfast, a thoroughly vintage counter joint located in the neighborhood known, fittingly, as Dinkytown. The vibe is places-your-grandparents-hung-out, but the food can be terrifically up to date. Blueberry walnut pancakes—an excellent taste and texture combination, served with pure Minnesota maple syrup, if you like—should be on more diner menus.
In 2020, panic set in when Ajax Diner stayed closed for a little longer than locals would have liked, but they needn't have worried—this quarter century-old meat-and-three on Courthouse Square in Oxford wasn't going anywhere. Owner Randy Yates was merely taking the opportunity to renovate, during what was most likely the first lull in the action since the place opened in the 1990s. Get the catfish, and all the classic veg you can put away—turnip greens, squash casserole, butterbeans, the works.
Restaurants come and go like clouds, but since 1937, Kansas City has been able to depend on Town Topic, an iconic little diner at 20th and Broadway. At any hour, on any day of the week, you can come here, and you should, for some of the finest burgers around. Fresh beef is pressed so thoroughly onto the flat top you can practically see through it, with liberal amounts of onions pressed on top of that, so the two cook together, lots of seasoning, and—boom—you've got another great, pre-trend smash burger. Kansas City has seen considerable changes over the last couple of decades, and Town Topic, which used to have locations all over town, now runs a decidedly smaller operation. But the original is still here, and if generations of locals have anything to say about it, that won't be changing anytime soon.
For years now, Montanans have had their opinions about Bozeman, and how it had changed, to the point where locals began referring to the place as Boz Angeles, thanks to an influx of Californians. Ten, fifteen years ago, the popular gateway city to Yellowstone and Big Sky ski country was definitely going through some changes. These days, on a sunny summer afternoon, there's no ignoring reality—you might as well be somewhere in Southern California. The more energetically Bozeman leans into the future, the more throwbacks like the Western Cafe matter. Celebrating the better part of a century in business, this wood-paneled paradise functions as something of an embassy for the old-timers, joined eagerly by visitors just looking for a cinnamon roll for breakfast, or a patty melt—with swiss, on rye—for lunch.
Chorizo hash, pork belly burritos, pancakes stuffed with granola—breakfast at Harold's Koffee House in Omaha sounds like a fairly modern affair, but then you show up to the corner of 30th and Broadway, and you wonder, are you in the right place? All but untouched since the late 1960s, when the regional favorite relocated to where you find it now, Harold's may well be something of a relic, visually anyway, with its waist-high booths and counter in a low-ceilinged room that can feel more like a cozy lounge than a busy diner. Rest assured, the food is extremely up to speed. Tender chicken-fried steak and the house chili (family recipe, unchanged in half a century) are made with quality local beef.
Here, the generously-padded seating glows electric blue and hot pink, evoking the interior of the dream limo you couldn't afford for junior prom. The Peppermill is a very stationary, not-going-anywhere gift to to the Las Vegas Strip, straight from the 1970s, that is so retro-fabulous it even has a cocktail room—this is Vegas, after all. Come for a happy hour Mai Tai or scorpion around the cool flame of one of the indoor fire pits, then grab a table on the more traditional (to use the term loosely) diner side for a shareable plate of nachos that could feed your whole table.
Built by the Worcester Lunch Car Co. back in 1940, Gilley's PM Lunch in Portsmouth is one of New England's best diners, small enough that for much of its life, the restaurant was actually a mobile operation. Since 1974, it's been sitting on the same back street, which everybody seems to know how to find. They come to admire the beautiful vintage porcelain and oak interior, and to sit at one of just a handful of stools at the counter, where they might order one of New Hampshire's best hot dogs, or the exquisite three ounce burgers. For a true taste of New England, order the Beans & Dogs—a generous helping of house-made beans, two high-quality franks, and slices of buttered bread for dipping, wrapped in wax paper. Make room for the perfect hand-cut fries, too, made with Maine-grown potatoes.
You've seen it play out so many times on television and in the movies: breakfast at a New Jersey diner. In real life, it's just as you imagined, maybe even better. There aren't many states where diner culture remains entrenched enough that they keep building new ones, each on a mission to outdo the rest, but that's New Jersey for you. They'll have to get up mighty early in the morning to beat Tops Diner, an all-day and into-the-night affair in East Newark, almost literally in the shadow of the Newark and New York City skylines, drawing people from all over, so many people that when they started to outgrow the original, they built a brand new one right next door. The menu is ambitious, but the staples still tend to shine brightest. Save room, if you can, for cake.
Blue corn hot cakes hinting of cinnamon, home fries mingling with red chile, omelets bursting with chorizo, carne adovada with your scrambles—if you weren't feeling the New Mexico vibe before you got to The Pantry in Santa Fe, one breakfast should put you right. Since the 1940s, this has been a prime go-to for locals and visitors. While it's rare to find a diner this famous holding itself to such a high standard, that's what keeps everyone coming back, no matter how busy the place can get. Save room for the Tortilla Burger—a messy knife and fork deal in a flour tortilla with beans and cheese doused in red chile and topped with more cheese. It is a bewildering thing. Get the curly fries on the side, and dip them in the entire (beautiful) mess.
Back before the beatniks, and then the hippies, and then the punks descended on Manhattan's East Village, a refugee couple from Ukraine opened a newsstand at the corner of Second Avenue and East Ninth Street, hoping to serve the local Eastern European community. Fast-forward about seventy years, and that same corner remains the home of what eventually became one of New York's best-loved all-night coffee shops, to this day offering a ringside seat to the neighborhood goings-on. Veselka's distinctive menu of pierogies, borscht, goulash, and latkes has been a comforting constant, a connecting thread in a city where the only thing ever promised is that nothing stands still.
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The other side of the Village may have long ago turned into a playground for well-heeled types living out their fantasies of a New York City that sometimes feels as if it no longer exists. Thank goodness, then, for the old-timers that have hung on, like La Bonbonniere, an unabashed dive with the faded Coca-Cola signage, doing its level best to lower the tone, in a part of town where even major fashion houses can no longer afford retail space. For the better part of a century, this French-in-name-only counter joint has managed to stay just out of the spotlight, on many days content to feed its crop of regulars, as if we were in a small town, if that small town were full of people you've seen in movies.
Massive portions of moussaka and some of the better biscuits in town live in perfect harmony on the menu at the Five Points Café, an are-we-really-in-Asheville, all-day joint that's been a thing since the 1970s. It's now operated by diner vets Louie and Pati Sellas, who moved from New York, bought the place, changed very little, and, in the process, made one of the city's least hip coffee shops better than ever.
Stroll through any of the Kroll's Diner locations, starting with the Bismarck original, which dates to the 1960s, and most of the tables will have ordered soup. Not just any soup, either. The house specialty here is Knoephla, the regional spin on an old German recipe, an indulgent, cream-based affair packed with bite-sized dumplings. So popular is the stuff that Kroll's sells it in half-gallon containers to go. While you're trying new things, follow that up with an order of Fleischkuechle—crispy, deep fried turnovers stuffed with seasoned ground beef.
Like something out of an old advertisement for coffee in a can, the lights flicker on well before sun-up at Berlin's Boyd & Wurthmann, a historic café deep into Ohio's Amish Country. On weekdays, the tables fill up quickly with groups of farmers, other manual laborers, and older folks who are retired but just trying to keep in the loop. The surrounding town can feel like something of a tourist trap, and the region does juggle an astonishing number of visitors each year. But since the 1930s, the diner has been a touchstone for the people who keep Holmes County humming, not to mention anyone else who cares to get in on the experience. Roll in late—say, around 6:30 in the morning—for cinnamon rolls and coffee, or the buckwheat hot cakes with smoky applewood bacon, adding on a small bottle of real maple syrup, which you can most probably afford (the decor here isn't the only thing that's old-timey). In the springtime, stop by for a plate of dandelion gravy, that Amish country staple made with eggs, bacon, and fresh-picked dandelion greens, served over your choice of potatoes.
Back during the Depression, enterprising cooks figured out a tasty way to help keep restaurant in Oklahoma profitable: Stretch the ground beef supply by serving fried onion burgers, which are exactly what they sound like—burgers with fried onions. Sometimes, lots and lots of fried onions. Not only was it economical, it was also delicious; the economy eventually bounced back, but the tradition stuck, and to this day, you can get an onion burger pretty much anywhere in the state. No more so than in the small Route 66 town of El Reno, considered to be the onion burger's spiritual home. One of the best comes from Sid's Diner, where the fry cooks press the onions down into the patty while it sizzles on the grill—the end result is superb. Not that it needs to be, but Sid's is more than a great burger joint; things kick off early in the day with an excellent chicken fried steak breakfast.
Homemade bread and jam set the tone at Fuller's, an unrepentantly classic corner joint in downtown Portland, where each seat in the restaurant is a counter seat, backed by giant windows that even on the darkest days lend the neighborhood's best no-nonsense diner an abundance of natural light. Old it may be, but there's a distinctive creativity to the menu here, nearly essential in a town where breakfast and brunch are essentially a new kind of religion. Choose from fresh, fried razor clams, try the indulgent Monte Cristo sandwich, or simply appreciate just how good a plate of bacon, eggs, and potatoes can be when someone behind the counter knows how to source these things correctly. Other breakfasts may be more famous, or more refined, other places may have better service, but let them wait for another day—chances are you won't feel like you're missing out.
The Mid-Atlantic region offers up one historic market hall after another, but there's a reason why Philadelphia's Reading Terminal became the most popular, and it's not just because you're a couple of steps from City Hall. The food is often really good, and while they may complain about the crowds, locals still come down here to make the rounds. A lot of them can be found waiting in line at the Dutch Eating Place on weekday mornings. Just look for the cross-section of humanity, waiting for their chance at the horseshoe counter, where they will eat the most regional of breakfasts—cream chipped beef over toast, griddled slabs of pork scrapple, warm apple dumplings, and classic sticky buns, served with extraordinary speed by a small and diverse army, often including Amish or Mennonite youths. Let's say you didn't know you were in Pennsylvania before, you sure do now. (Should there be a lengthy wait, send someone in your party one stall over for cruller-like glazed donuts at Beiler's Bakery, a steal at just over a buck apiece.)
America's snack-sized state remains passionate about the humble cornmeal fry cake, also called a jonnycake, unless of course they are called johnnycakes, or journey cakes, or who knows what else. These simple beauties will be made from cornmeal, or perhaps from white cornmeal; sometimes they'll be thick, sometimes thin. Who knew, really, that such a relatively small group of people could have so many differing opinions over something so simple as breakfast? Let the locals talk amongst themselves, because you've got whatever-they're-called to eat, swimming in melted butter and warmed syrup, if you like. Get your 1700s on at the classic Jigger's Diner in East Greenwich, the existence of which is rather a miracle, when you consider how many times the old dining car has been sold (or shut down, each time supposedly for good).
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To the very long list of list of Things The Pandemic Did, add the indignity of no more early morning breakfasts of local seafood at Hannibal's Soul Kitchen in Charleston. Thank goodness, at least, that one of the city's most important restaurants—serving local and visitor alike for going on half a century—is still here, and serving lunch and dinner. Comforting pan-fried blue crab over rice is the must-order, though the sautéed shrimp plate is always a good decision.
Strong coffee and sticky caramel rolls set the stage for a morning to remember at the Phillips Avenue Diner in Sioux Falls, a gleaming tribute—inside and out—to classic Americana, even if half of the patrons seem to be ordering the huevos rancheros burrito, a spicy gut-buster that has gone a long way toward making this one of the more popular breakfast joints in town. If the crowd seems particularly pleased to be here, that's because the restaurant spent a good chunk of last year recovering (and repairing) from an electrical fire.
Just now celebrating a century in existence, the Hopper-worthy Arcade, around the corner from the Lorraine Motel (now part of the National Civil Rights Museum), has seen all sorts pass through the doors, rather notably a young Elvis Presley. Presley was known to use the restaurant's back door as an escape hatch, when the fans went a little bit too wild. There's a peanut butter and banana sandwich on the menu, of course, and the diner sells roughly 100 of them each week: plump, delicious things served on buttered and griddled Texas toast. The Arcade is so much more than a piece of Memphis memorabilia; this is a living, breathing, local institution, serving up no-frills Southern food, every single day of the week. Start with the biscuits and country ham.
Declaring a particular all-day hash house the best in contender-heavy San Antonio is akin to insisting, to anyone who will listen, that you've come upon the absolute best pizza in New York, or the finest Italian beef in Chicago. Fine, go nuts, just as long as you know that there are going to be a lot of people with what we might politely refer to as opposing viewpoints, and a good percentage of them rather strongly held, at that. Of course, a dizzying excess of choice is the point; San Antonio is spoiled for good breakfasts and fine barbecue, but you don't often find both under the same roof, which makes Garcia's Mexican Food extra special. This long-running family restaurant manages to be almost all things to all people—a great breakfast-at-the-counter joint, a Tex-Mex restaurant, and a solid spot for brisket, with eggs, in tacos, however you like it, really.
Ruth Evans is the sort of person that Salt Lake old-timers have typically talked about, when they talk about how their city has always been less buttoned-up than its reputation might suggest. The chain-smoking, gun-toting, former cabaret singer was for many years the proprietor of Ruth's Diner, Utah's second oldest restaurant, which remains one of Salt Lake's most popular places for a meal out, despite being holed way up Emigration Canyon. The restaurant is there because Evans wanted it there—once she'd had enough of city life, she had the old city trolley car towed out of town and into the wild, where she lived out her days with her rather aggressive Chihuahuas, even after she sold the restaurant. Ever since, generations of hungry people have been making the trek up to the now-expanded restaurant for Ruth's favorites, like biscuits and gravy, eggs benedict, baked macaroni and cheese, and meatloaf.
Claim a booth inside this 1940s Silk City dining car, built all the way down in Paterson, New Jersey, pop a bit of change into your personal juke box, maybe play a little Glenn Miller, or Ray Charles, for the people—that is, if you can even get in the door at the Blue Benn in Bennington, where they were busy elevating diner food for decades before it became a trend. Recently sold, but in a safe pair of hands, this classic is one of Vermont's most popular diners, so thank goodness, even though the place barely seats more than 40 on a good day, there's a bit of room to wait inside, out of the typical New England chill. What to eat? Observe, hanging above you, all of those signs, row upon row of them, announcing the various specials and menu additions, fluttering gently like prayer flags. The vibe may be classic diner, but for a place this petite, there's a lot of work going on behind the counter—tofu scrambles, excellent eggs Benedict, exemplary berry pancakes, pot roast dinners, and classic puddings for dessert.
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For decades, anybody with two nickels to rub together has found themselves welcome to one of ten counter seats at the Bullington family's Texas Tavern. Here, the hot dogs are still accessibly priced and best ordered "all the way," with the house chili sauce, onions, and a unique mustard-based relish that's popular enough they sell it by the quart. For a real trip back in time, wash it all down with a glass of buttermilk. "Yes, Ladies Enjoy Eating Here," announces the sign on the door at the 91-year-old Texas Tavern in Roanoke, only recently celebrating its full reopening after 14-plus months of struggling by with takeout-only. For nervous lifelong customers of the 24/7 diner, it was quite the homecoming, everyone piling in for chile (not a typo) dogs and Cheesy Westerns, the latter quite easily the city's most iconic $3 meal—a cheeseburger with a fried egg, pickles, and sweet relish, plus onions if you want. Founded in 1930 by Nick Bullington, the restaurant is currently owned by great-grandson Matt.
What's a serious dining car set-up, one that plenty of New England cities wish they still had, doing in a city as far west as Spokane? The story of Frank's Diner goes back all the way to the 1930s, when Frank Knight rescued a 1906 Barney Smith observation car from a Seattle rail yard, dragged it over the Cascades, dusted the thing off, and made Frank's into what remains Eastern Washington's best-loved diner. Fittingly situated directly below railroad tracks, the grills at Frank's fire up at six o'clock each morning, every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving, for orders of classic silver dollar hot cakes, not to mention everything else on the thoughtful, often locally-sourced menu.
Even for people who like to hang around really old restaurants, it's not every day that you rub elbows with people who say things like "boy, this place sure hasn't changed much from the days I used to deliver telegrams for Western Union." But that's just how it goes at the pint-sized Ritzy Lunch, a staple in extremely-Italian-American Clarksburg since the 1930s, where the Salerio family is still very much in charge, as they have been for generations. Don't get any ideas from the name; the menu here is as retro as the space itself, centered around some of the finest hot dogs for miles, topped with chili, mustard, onions, and if you like, coleslaw. This is, however, much more than a hot dog joint; come in for everything from biscuits and gravy and $4 omelets to burgers, and the daily Italian sausage special.
You know how you show up to a really good steakhouse, and your dry-aged ribeye comes out sizzling, with a pat of really good butter melting into the already well-marbled side of beef? When they do it, it's fine, so why do people furrow their brows when they find out that in Wisconsin, which does not call itself America's Dairyland for nothing, they give their burgers the same treatment? Solly's Grille in Milwaukee, around since the Great Depression, has something of a reputation for flooding the zone, so to speak; don't be surprised if your burger, a quarter pound of quality sirloin, procured from a local butcher, topped with the famous house stewed onions, comes out in a pool of salty Wisconsin butter. Go ahead and dip. Lots of people do. Breakfast ends at 10:30 but we'll make an exception—why would be you be eating anything except a butter burger after that hour?
Out on the western fringe of the state capital, Cheyenne, there is a stretch of road largely reserved for budget lodgings, used car dealerships, and other things most folks aren't driving around looking for. In good weather and sometimes not, however, there will be a small crowd of hungry-looking people standing in front of the wonderfully retro Wyoming Motel, waiting for their tables or counter stools inside Luxury Diner, partially fashioned out of a vintage Cheyenne streetcar that retired to the motel lot in the 1920s. We're on the High Plains, here, where Southwest and Midwest and Western breakfast traditions meet, so look for breakfast burritos, doused in green chile, but also for fresh cinnamon rolls very nearly the size of frisbees, hibernating under drifts of white frosting. And when you're ready, the chicken-fried steak, swimming in country gravy, is better than most.