The American Diner: A Dying Breed

Why is it that films set in the 1950s and ’60s all seem to feature Southern California teens with their hot rods parked outside, wearing plain white tees with rolled sleeves, and denim all gathered around a Formica table in a red and white glitter booth? I can only make one guess: diners are the lifeblood of an ideal American image. Well, a stereotypical American image anyway. Notice my mention of the ’50s and ‘60s? These were what we know as the golden years of diners in America; most likely because this era is the one idealized in movies, art, and other popular culture. Though, a little before the ’50s but still relevant, picture Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting titled Nighthawk or even work by Norman Rockwell. The 2017 hit television series ‘Riverdale’ is getting in on the classic diner action too. All these pieces reproduce the nostalgic and ideal image of diner culture. Frankly today, diners are a dying breed. All the flashy neon and the hazy green Coca-Cola glasses are things of the past, so to speak. Yet, there’s irony in this statement because, at the same time, it is all something we as a culture just can’t seem to shake.

Diners get their design from rail cars and, even earlier, wagons. The creation of a first stationary diner, opened in 1913, is to be credited to a man by the name of Jerry Mahoney. Following its creation, the diner underwent many shifts yet has stood the test of time. As WWI broke out, this meant that diners now had to cater more to women and worked to provide lower-cost “home-cooked” style meals while men were away serving their country. The Great Depression tested much of America though diners still stood strong with their bright, seemingly promising, futuristic exterior sheen and low-cost meals. When service members returned home following the end of WWII, diners gained even more traction. The post-WWII diner is the one most commonly idealized in media and popular culture. This is the design we are most familiar with — as hinted at in the introduction. These establishments come in all shapes and sizes, though their concept surrounding things such as timelessness and “home-cooked meals” remains constant. Most are open 24/7, and following the 1964 Civil Rights Act, serve individuals without discretion based on race, gender, or economic status. In a diner, at that present moment in time, everyone gathered inside has at least one mutual shared experience — and that’s being there together. This by itself is enough to appreciate its beauty.

I’d have to say that I was indoctrinated into local diner culture a long time ago by a server named Hector Rivera. We met hector during a trip to White Palace Grill, located at 1159 S. Canal St., Chicago, IL, around the early 2000s. My dad and I would sit right up against the East facing wall stuffed in a bright Coca-Cola shade red and white booth while I’d gaze outside the picture window as trains came and went back and forth through the Amtrak yard just past the property.

Hector would go out of his way to accommodate us by securing our booth and treating us like we were some kind of extra-special people when, in fact, we were just your average sloppy Joe’s off the street. He went as far as to gift me a White Palace Grill trucker-style ballcap as a kid — not once, but twice, on two separate occasions years apart after we returned and had explained to him the impact he had on me as a little boy. We would see him regularly and he’d never forget us. You’ll find a great interview done by Eater Chicago highlighting Hector Rivera’s glowing personality here. I’ve returned to White Palace over and over hoping to run into Hector and relive those memories, though I’ve always been met with the same response: “He’s working at Hollywood, hun.” Knowing this and realizing that one day I need to get over there for myself, I would reply with: “Man, I need to make the trip over there before he goes somewhere else.” Truly down to earth people like Hector are a dying breed.

Given the long list of considerations, it’s no mystery what draws people to diners. Quite simply, it could be that those same people are holding onto close memories that are near and dear to them. A time capsule, if you will. Not just a figurative capsule but a literal one as well. White Palace Grill has been around since 1939, so naturally, there’s a lot of history in the building.

Its decor takes patrons back in time with crafted plastic stained glass-esque murals of significant figures, mostly music icons and such, throughout the decades which cover the fluorescent lighting in the drop ceiling. A unique little touch. Jukebox and gum ball machine? You got it! I mustn’t forget to mention the brightly colored booths we all know and love and the faded pastels that litter the walls. The decor is an escape from the usual; from the modern. Most importantly though, the food at White Palace is timeless. Two over-easy eggs and a plate of hashbrowns? Coming right up. You won’t find avocado toast at this greasy spoon or any other diner worth its name. Even with the omission of this item from the menu they still manage to reel in hungry customers of all ages through the door. But how? Articles like this one about dining trends and this one from Business Insider explain how the current younger population seems to enjoy communal dining and are eating out more often than they are cooking at home. These two facts nearly speak for themselves. Sitting at the counter of a diner is, naturally, a communal experience. It is filled with elbows touching strangers and a barrage of small talk back and forth from the customers and through to the kitchen. It’s warm and it’s friendly. It’s an opportunity unique for a dining experience.

In the spirit of trying to uncover more of Chicago’s diner scene, this led me to take into consideration the impacts of location on an establishment. The South Loop location of White Palace Grill is inherently different in many ways to a restaurant, say, on the North Side. All of the cards fell into place and I found myself on the CTA Blue Line headed Northwest toward Hollywood Grill, a sister store of White Palace Grill, located off of North Ave. in Wicker Park, Chicago, IL. Conveniently, this also happened to be Hector’s last known location. The hunt was on.

Outside the diner, next to the door, stood a waitress taking in the last puff of her cigarette under the ambient glow from the sign mounted on the corner of the building hanging just above her head. We locked eyes which allowed an opportunity for me to tie up some loose ends. I broke the ice and asked her if Hector was working the night shift. To my disappointment, she let me know that Hector was not working that night nor at all. She failed to elaborate much more than that but explained nonchalantly that Hector no longer worked at Hollywood Grill. I realize people come and go and I respect that, but this left me with more questions than it did answers. Following our small talk, we both hurried inside from out of the cold and parted ways. She went back to waiting on tables and I was seated with the rest of my group at ours situated just under the custom painted mural.

Somehow, for the remainder of that night, the whole experience lost its luster. Everything I had just explained about diners being a source of limitless satisfaction seemed illegitimate now. Was this all a manufactured ideal? I was in good company, though reality fell short of my expectations. Maybe this was because without a friendly face like Hector’s and the uncertainty of his departure I had been left longing for the experience I used to have — the cherished memories that were near and dear. Maybe I was holding onto the past and onto a fictitious reality. The magical aura that diners hold seemed to be missing at Hollywood Grill on that Saturday night. The restaurant was mostly empty, though occasionally a booth or two would fill up with a young couple or a few friends. There was no music over the speakers that I recall, my egg was tragically overcooked, and on more than two occasions my coffee cup went dry.

Or rather simply, maybe this night could have been made better through a friendlier face or a taller coffee mug. The cards that so quickly fell into place had now fallen just as quickly out of place.

I’m not a food or restaurant critic nor will I pretend to be one; but might it be possible that Hector’s departure is a sign of something much bigger within this dining community? It’s entirely possible. Could this all be attributed to an off night at the Hollywood Grill? That certainly had a lot to do with it, I’m sure. There’s a bigger question posed here, though, and that being: is the future of diners still a bright and promising one or is this cultural icon losing traction? Is the modern experience at a diner a warm, fuzzy, and friendly reality or are we simply clouded by that ideal?

I’d say it depends on the location and your expectations upon entering. I believe we need to be realistic and come to terms with the fact that most food service workers are not treated as well as they should and over time that takes an incredible toll. By most, they are treated as servants whose sole purpose at that moment is to bridge the gap between a hungry stomach and food.

We’re losing the humanity and personal connection that built the greasy spoon culture and until we can revive and sustain that connection we risk losing it to other 24-hour fast food establishments.

In these images, you’ll find White Palace Grill reduced to a minuscule footprint while commercial retail and parking tower over the historic establishment. The picture window I’d found myself enamored with has since been covered up by the Bank of America and the rail yard is no longer visible from the restaurant. The trucker hats, gifted to me by Hector, are presently buried deep in storage somewhere collecting dust.

Walking or driving past Hollywood Grill from any direction invites a gaze toward a large obnoxiously-lit billboard strategically mounted on the roof of the building advertising for alcohol. At a glance you’ll realize how busy the corner of North and Ashland is, making this a prime location for an establishment that feeds (no pun intended) off of high traffic. But that’s if you can even find the restaurant itself. A quick search on Google Maps yields no results for “Hollywood Grill Chicago” — it’s no wonder this place is empty.

So what is it? Why do our expectations and reality rarely line up? If I may speculate, I think it’s because of this overly-glorified image that turns the diner into something that it’s not. Most likely, the diners which do embody this spirit do so because popular culture has told them they need to act a certain way to survive. This might explain the stark contrast between White Palace and Hollywood Grill. One of these “greasy spoons” embraces the stereotype while the other coasts quietly along. As a reminder, this is all simply speculation, though I do feel it’s something worth pondering.

In conclusion, here’s my call to action — and I’ll present it explicitly. If we’re serious about preserving the American diner and that experience then we need to be intentional about it. Pop culture glorification of anything rarely works in its favor and we’ve seen this before. The White Palace Grill and Hollywood Grill are two real-life establishments with real-life employees who keep it running 24/7. Both restaurants are unique in their own way showing that the “diner scene” is merely an overgeneralization. Seemingly in opposition to the previous statement on my experience, the employees all have a massive dedication to their craft, though the American dream is not the same as it used to be. I believe the decline of the American diner is directly correlated with the changing American dream. Regardless of how we try to spin it, the truth is that people and places like this are truly a dying breed.

I don’t believe an accurate representation of diners in America is made by visiting only two eating establishments in the city of Chicago. This could have been an examination filled with experiences lasting months, though due to time constraints I only had weeks. I can promise this won’t be the last you’ll hear from me about the American diner. I think this calls for a roadtrip.

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