The Ocean State defends its local food traditions with a fervor inversley proportional to its size: Rhode Island diners take pride in quirky items like stuffed quahogs, New York System wieners, and coffee milk. The state’s role in what may be its most significant contribution to American food culture is less well known, though. The diner—the iconic, inexpensive, prefabricated American restaurant—has its genesis in 19th century Providence.
In 1872, realizing that hungry newspapermen working through the night on the next day’s paper might want a hot meal, Walter Scott quit his job at the Providence Journal, bought a horse and wagon, and set up shop in front of the offices of the paper every night until four in the morning. Most restaurants in his day would have closed by 8 p.m. Working out of his cart, he sold food that would not be totally out of place in a diner today: hot sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, and pie, all cooked to order. Sandwiches ran about five cents; high rollers could spring for a plate of chicken, which cost thirty cents – about six dollars in 2011 money.
Scott’s food was a hit, and downtown Providence was quickly clogged by mobile vendors selling hot food at all hours of the night. They began selling from what we would today call a food cart. Competition was fierce, and before the turn of the century Scott’s rivals developed a compact restaurant, that could be pulled by horses, with stools for patrons inside. These lunch wagons, as they were called, were such a success that companies like the Wooster Lunch Car Company began to mass-produce them in factories. As the years went on mobility became less important and the horse-drawn lunch wagon gave way to the prefabricated roadside restaurant that is so familiar today.
Walter Scott, for his part, wrapped up his long career selling food in downtown Providence in 1917. In a newspaper profile marking the end of his career, Scott acknowledged his influence: “I guess I’ve done my share putting the night lunch on the map, and I’m perfectly willing to let others do the scratching for dollars that came pretty easy in the old days.”
The essential elements of the modern diner were in place when Scott retired. Diners were already places where one could eat an inexpensive meal cooked to order at odd hours. Prefabricated construction of the building, though, is what ultimately qualifies a restaurant as a diner today. Richard Gutman, curator of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson and Wales University, contends, “You can categorize the building by a certain architecture, and a true diner is built in a factory. There are a lot of other places that are quick lunch restaurants that have the same feel, but I think when you add the typical diner food to the architecture and the materials and the patina, it’s better to be strict in your definition.” The Thayer Street Johnny Rockets, in other words, does not pass muster.
Diners are not fast food restaurants, churning out identical food anywhere in the world. Because diners are built in factories, they often share a high degree of architectural similarity. This physical similarity, however, belies the often-high degree of personality and regional variation to be found in many diners. Unlike a fast food place, according to Gutman, “Each one has its own personality, and its own chef, and its own menu, so you don’t necessarily know what to expect there. That’s part of the fun.” Rhode Island diners, for example, will likely serve clams, in the same way that a diner in Maryland have crab cakes.
Providence may have given birth to the diner, but it is probably impossible for any one city to claim ownership. The diner is a distinctively American type that transcends regional stereotyping. Because the restaurants are by definition generic and mobile, they can defy geography: it’s cheap and easy to move a diner if rents get raised, or another market beckons. A famous New York diner called the Moondance, for example, was shipped to Wyoming a few years ago, and seems none the worse for wear. However, while Providence may not own the idea of the diner, it should be considered an integral component of Rhode Island food culture. As Gutman puts it, “because they originated here, and there have been some in the city of Providence ever since, I would say they’re part of our landscape and our tradition.”
CHRIS COHEN ’12 wants to put Johnny Rockets on wheels.
PROVIDENCE DINERS TODAY
Providence continues, in that vein, to boast several excellent prefabricated diners:
Gutman named the Seaplane Diner as his favorite: it’s located south at 307 Allens Avenue, across the street from the Port of Providence. The Seaplane has a classic diner atmosphere (in a good way) and is known for its Oreo pancakes and meatloaf.
The Modern Diner on East Avenue in Pawtucket was the first diner added to the National Register of Historic Places, in 1978. It was built in 1941 in the then-trendy streamlined style: it resembles a futuristic train car. Today it serves food a little more upscale than typical diner fare: think lobster eggs benedict instead of a simple scramble.
The Liberty Elm Diner (formerly the Central) was added to the National Register of Historic Places more recently, in 2010. It is one of about 90 remaining Worcester Lunch Car diners left in service. At its new location on Elmwood Avenue, it has adopted contemporary coffee shop sensibility, with WiFi, concerts, and tofu.
The Haven Brothers Diner harkens back almost all the way to Walter Scott himself: Haven Brothers has operated in Providence since it was pulled by horses in 1888. Unlike the modern stationary restaurant, Haven Brothers is still a self-contained restaurant on wheels. It parks every night on the corner of Dorrance and Fulton Streets until 5 am.