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Nostalgic Diners: Come for the Eggs, Stay for the Experience

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By Victor Block

In 1872, in Providence, Rhode Island, Walter Scott began selling takeout food from a horse-drawn wagon at dusk. He attracted late-shift workers, theatergoers and others who were out and about after dark. Based upon his success, a factory soon began building "lunch wagons." These were followed, in turn, by converted railway dining cars. After that, during the 1920s to 1940s, came modest buildings featuring art deco and streamline moderne elements that copied the appearance of those cars.

After World War II and the opening of the interstate highway system, these diners saw a boom in business. The typical establishment had stainless-steel siding and nostalgic, retro-style touches.

Their casual atmosphere, comfort-food cuisine, extended service hours and modest prices provided alternatives to higher-priced restaurants and continue to do so today. They also provide a walk down memory lane for people seeking to recapture a chapter of the country's culinary past.

Here's an introduction to several iconic diners that offer good food, efficient service and an immersion in part of the American story that combines sustenance with sentimentality. Travelers seeking this experience can use an Internet search to find classic diners throughout the country.

Diners are popular throughout Florida with year-round residents, long-term "snowbirds" who spend several months each year escaping the winter cold where they live and short-term passersby. My wife, Fyllis, and I joined the latter group during our recent visit to Hollywood, where we enjoyed brunch at Jack's Diner. Along with the usual menu items, they serve up Southern favorites such as biscuits slathered with homemade sausage gravy and pecan pie. Decorations throughout the interior transported Fyllis and me back into the past.

 

As is true at many of these establishments, members of the waitstaff are very friendly. Female customers often are addressed as "Honey" and "Doll," and men become "Darling." Caroline, our Jack's Diner waitress, acted as if we had known each other for years and were close friends. She felt comfortable confiding in us the news that "It gets crazy here early in the morning when people from nearby adult drinking establishments come by for a bite to eat."

The A1 Diner in Gardiner, Maine, is one of the oldest still in business. When it opened in 1946, it immediately became popular among workers in the nearby paper mills. The same neon signs, vinyl booths and other decor features that greeted them continue to appeal to people today. The spot is popular among both locals and travelers, all of whom drop by to enjoy stick-to-your-ribs dishes that include some Maine-specific menu items.

The Olympia Diner in Newington, Connecticut, is another ageless eatery, in business since 1954. It has appeared in movies, commercials and public service announcements. It also has been the setting for some real-life dramas. People have met their spouses there, business deals have been made, a marriage proposal accepted and, on one occasion, divorce papers served.

The vintage bright neon light display that identifies the Marietta Diner in Georgia indicates that, like many such establishments, it is open 24-7 and offers a full breakfast all day and night. Along with the usual fare, the menu includes a section listing Greek specialties. Some regulars return to enjoy the baklava and baklava cheesecake, which are popular signature dishes.

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