“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, Calif.
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.
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Diners certainly pluck a chord of American nostalgia. They belong to our culture and 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 or Manhattan.
Mickey’s Diner, St. Paul, Minn.
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.
Brent’s Drugs, Jackson, Miss.
Opened as a drugstore and 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.
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.
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Modern Snack Bar, Long Island, N.Y.
This favorite in Aquebogue, 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, Maine
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, Calif.
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.
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