Retro Americana Is on the Menu at These 17 Diners - Atlas Obscura Lists

Retro Americana Is on the Menu at These 17 Diners

Sometimes you just need a burger and fries with a side of nostalgia.

Like many great American hustlers, Walter Scott started young. It was 1857 in Providence, Rhode Island, and the newspaper business was booming. Scott was just 16, but he noticed that workers on the graveyard shift had few places to go. So he started slinging newspapers, candy, and later hot coffee during the wee hours. 

By 1872, he’s expanded enough to get serious about the “late lunch” business. When the sun went down, he’d head to the headquarters of the Providence Journal in a jerry-rigged freight wagon with a canvas top, where he’d serve the beleaguered workers until a few hours before dawn. Before long, other “dining cart” operators began to copy Scott’s model. By the turn of the 20th century, these once-mobile operations began putting down permanent roots. By the post-World War II era, they were a staple of blue-collar America from coast to coast.

Today, there are some 7,000 diners scattered across the United States, along with countless other homages to the genre around the globe. Ultimately, a great diner is more about vibes than anything. Yes, you’re here for the food—which should be inexpensive, calorically dense, and preferably served with speed because we’ve all got to hit the road. 

But the true standouts of the genre offer more than superlative lemon pie with a mile-high meringue. Some speak to a certain moment in history, like the “diner of the future,” a 1939 relic of the World’s Fair in Queens, or Frank’s Diner, a New Jersey-style number in Wisconsin that hasn’t stopped serving “garbage plages” since 1926. Oftentimes, the high kitsch factor is part of the appeal—think: a Space Race-inspired diner or a 1950s-themed restaurant in the Mojave Desert where you can eat your cheeseburger in the company of 10-foot-tall dinosaur statues.

While the diner may be an inherently American invention, like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola, its footprint now extends across the globe. Head to Kaohsiung, Taiwan or Neve Ilan, Israel and you’ll find Frito pies, Elvis memorabilia, and other things that feel airlifted from Route 66.