What is a Diner?

"Hey, wanna go to a diner?" Dave asked.

"Sure, you've got a car tonight?"

"Yeah, let's leave in like 15 minutes"

This is how most "diner nights" started for us. We both have something to talk about. It's best talked about over coffee. It's more fun if we can entertain each other with diner tricks. It can only be handled in a diner. It doesn't need to be a specific diner. Just any diner in New Jersey. Hop in the car. Drive around. Find a diner.

Then one day I said, "What's to stop us from going to IHOP?"

"It's not a diner," replied Dave, a bit annoyed that I even suggested it.

"But if you think about it, it's got just about everything a diner has."

"It's not a DINER." Dave emphasized. "Well then, what IS a diner?"

That had to sink in. There is so much that can define a diner and yet so little. Does it have to be a stand-alone business? Does it have to be open 24 hours a day? Does it have to have a 50's Americana theme? Does it have to be prefabricated? Does it need a counter? There are diners that range from your classic greasy spoon truck stop, to your upscale family style restaurant. How can these two be classed in the same category when they are so vastly different? It's a question every diner-regular at one point has to answer. And, if you asked 20 people in a diner, you'd get about 50 answers.


"What?" I asked.

"Coffee. A diner has to have coffee. Can we establish that as a requirement?"

"Yeah, that's for sure. And breakfast. Breakfast anytime I want it." I think for a second, "Just like IHOP."

"Stop saying that." (Dave obviously needs to find a diner and get coffee in his system.)

"Okay, no IHOP. No Denny's. No McDonalds. No big multinational chains. Unless of course it's a chain of diners. Then that goes out of our definition."

"Yeah. No chains. I guess. The food gets a bit more pricey than its worth at chains. Diners mean good food at a reasonable price served whenever you want. That means pancakes, and french fries, and COFFEE, whenever you're in the mood for it. Any time, day or night. It has to be open 24 hours."

Wow. That's a tough one. There are plenty of establishments I've been in that I've said, 'Wow! What a great diner!' and then I find out that they close at midnight. Many of them have the word 'diner' in their title. And then there's Denny's, whose corporate slogan is 'Always Open.' What if the place is just open till midnight? What if they are open 24 hours most days, but close on Sundays at midnight because it's a little expensive to keep the place open when no business EVER comes in on Sundays at 2 in the morning?

"Let's leave that one in the air," I say. "If we get a bit overwhelmed, we can always change it." Thinking of what else could possibly be a characteristic of a diner: "What about neon, does a diner need neon in its storefront to survive our definition?"

"Hrm. Most diners have neon in their signs. But there are a bunch that don't. I don't know about that one. Oh, I've got one, its gotta have a counter."

"Counter? What are you talking about? There are plenty of diners with no counters. It's gotta have booths! And music. Those little jukeboxes that they have in the booths are nice."

"Is a jukebox a requirement or just a diner perk? I mean it can be a diner without those jukebox things right?"

"Yeah, I suppose. But there aren't too many family restaurant with those jukeboxes. I just figured it was a distinction"

"I guess we just know a diner when we get to one."

We pull up to a brightly lit, single story building. The large neon sign out front emblazons the words "DINER: Open 24 Hours" We step in, sit at a booth right across from the counter. Order our coffee. Dave orders pancakes. I order french fries. We drop a couple quarters into the jukebox, argue for a bit and choose a Frank Sinatra song and a couple of your cheesier 80s songs. The waitress comes over and fills our cups, dropping a bunch of half-and-half creamers on the table as Dave begins talking about what was bothering him. The place is filled, even this late at night, with other people, in other booths, talking with their friends about what's on their minds.

This Dave, this is a diner.