The very first recorded diner was a horse-drawn wagon equipped to serve hot food to
employees of the Providence Journal newspaper, in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872.
Walter Scott, who ran the lunch wagon, was making additional money to support his
growing family by selling sandwiches and hot coffee to his fellow workers at the Journal
from baskets he prepared at his home.
Commercial production of lunch wagons began in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1887 by
Thomas Buckley who was very successful and became known for his "White House Cafe"
wagons. Charles Palmer received the first patent (1891) for the diner. He built his "Fancy
Night Cafes" and "Night Lunch Wagons" in the Worcester area until 1901. In 1906 Philip
Duprey and Irving Stoddard established the Worcester Lunch Car Company, which
shipped their structures all over the eastern coast. The first manufactured lunch wagons
with non counter seating appeared throughout the Northeastern US in the late 19th
century, serving busy downtown locations without the need to buy expensive real estate.
It is generally accepted that the name "diner" as opposed to "lunch wagon" was not widely
used before 1925.
The Bendix Diner in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, is an example of Art Deco style and
neon signs. In Bayonne, New Jersey, a man by the name of Jerry O'Mahony is credited to
have made the first diner. The Jerry O'Mahony Diner Company of Elizabeth, New Jersey,
produced 2,000 diners from 1917 to 1952. Only approximately twenty O'Mahony diners
are still in existence throughout the United States and in certain parts of the world. In the
U.S., the northernmost is Martha's Diner in Coventry, Vermont. The Summit Diner, a 1938
model, is located in Summit, NJ. The oldest southern diner (non–stainless steel style) is
believed to be the Hillsville Diner in Carroll County, Virginia. The Triangle Diner, a 1948
stainless steel O'Mahony original model, is located in the old town of Winchester, Virginia
and has been historically restored to how it appeared in 1948. The Triangle Diner is the
oldest stainless steel style O'Mahony diner in the State of Virginia. In 2007 Tommy's
Deluxe Diner was moved from Middletown, Rhode Island to Oakley, Utah where it opened
as the Road Island Diner.
One of the original diners was displayed at the 1939 New York World's Fair, made by
Paramount Diners, is still in operation as the White Mana in Jersey City.
As the number of seats increased, wagons gave way to pre-fabricated buildings made by
many of the same manufacturers who had made the wagons. Like the lunch wagon, a
diner allowed someone to set up a food service business quickly and inexpensively by
using pre-assembled construction and equipment.
Up to the Great Depression, most diner manufacturers and their customers were located
in the Northeast. Diner manufacturing suffered with other industries during the Great
Depression, but not as much as others because people still had to eat, and the diner
offered a less expensive way of getting into the restaurant business as well as less
expensive food than more formal restaurants. After World War II, as the economy returned
to civilian production and the suburbs boomed, diners were an attractive small business
opportunity for many returning home from the war. During this period, diners spread
beyond their original urban and small town market to highway strips in the suburbs, even
reaching the Midwest.
The introduction of fast food in the 1960’s threatened the American diner. Fast food giants
with their quick, cheap, predictable menus were more appealing to the "I Need it Now"
commuters and urban sprawlers. Diners became tired obsolete relics to where some diner
owners became so embarrassed by their structures, they literally started bricking them in
or building over their existing dining cars to make them more appealing to restaurant
Many new diners of this era, like the “Colonial” diners, had no resemblance to their
predecessors. They featured masoned arches, stone faces, sharp angles and mansard
roofs, looking more like large Mediterranean family restaurants with it's more expensive
menus, sending the era of the classic diner look and prices to it's grave.
Out with the old, no matter how good it was, and in with the new, no matter how bad it
maybe. Farewell to this roadside beacon of an American eatery, buried along side it's
majestic cousin of the same fate, the "Drive In Movie" theater.