The World’s Best Diners
Little Goat Diner, Chicago. Photograph by Galdones Photography
The classic American eating experience that went global.
The American diner dates back to the 19th century, when a certain Mr Walter Scott (not the Ivanhoe one, a different one), set up a food and drinks stall from his wagon. Following his lead, early diners were always moveable structures, only settling down in the early 20th century when people began to repurpose old horse-drawn carriages as static pieces of architecture. This explains why, to this day, the diner still adheres closely to the classic design of locomotive wagons, from the chrome-clad bar stools to the use of heavy-duty, lightweight materials such as Formica and linoleum. It’s also why the menus tend towards the functional: the diner has always been about getting food on the go.
How did this humble eatery become an icon of Americana? It’s largely thanks to film and TV. In Twin Peaks, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper’s best ideas came to him as he tucked into Norma’s cherry pie, washed down with a damn fine cup of coffee; Pumpkin and Honey Bunny set the entire tone of Pulp Fiction, with one final declaration of love over a plastic diner table; and Reservoir Dogs’ Mr Pink singled himself out when he refused to tip the waitress. Countless films have heightened our collective memory of the diner: Pleasantville, Groundhog Day, Back To The Future, Fargo, Coffee And Cigarettes, Buffalo ’66 and – yes! – When Harry Met Sally all have key scenes that take place in the smoky booths of small-town diners.
But the diner is more than just a fantastic location for a self-reflective scene. It also has a lasting appeal as a neutral, unpretentious space, a home from home full of simple comforts. The burgers are burgers, the milkshakes are milkshakes, and the coffee is invariably mediocre rather than damn fine, but you’ll drink two or more cups of it anyway because it’s diner coffee.
Such is the diner’s stranglehold on popular culture that replicas, both authentic and inauthentic, have sprung up globally. The resurgence of American soul food and our appreciation of simpler times have undoubtedly helped them flourish. Here, we look at the best diners in the world, both on home US soil and abroad.
The “Historic” Village Diner, Red Hook, New York
Left: The “Historic” Village Diner. Photograph by Ms Karen McBurnie. Right: omelette. Photograph by Gallery Stock
Students from the liberal Bard College near the sleepy upstate New York town of Red Hook have been using this as a feeding hole for years. One of the most authentic diners on this list, The “Historic” Village Diner became the first in New York State to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. The mobile unit was salvaged from rail yards in 1925 and moved to its current stationary spot, and the enamelled walls, laminate counter and ribbed metal kitchen are (mostly) original, recalling the golden age of on-train dining. The kitchen opens at 6am and serves home classics, such as chilli and black bean burgers.
What to order: grab a classic omelette; they will make it with anything you like.
7550 North Broadway, Red Hook, NY 12571, UShistoric-village-diner.com
Nalu Diner, Berlin
Nalu Diner and the deuces wild breakfast platter. Photographs by Mr Erik Collinder
Prenzlauer Berg has been beefing (sorry) up its restaurant appeal for years now. Alongside the popular Lichtblick Kino bar and Krone coffee shop, the district now has one of Europe’s most authentic American diner exports – good news for hangover sufferers in a city known for late nights. Its American founders, Mr Oliver Miller and Mr James Alefantis, decided not to take their cues verbatim from the diners they knew back home, but rather created an understated space that references the sense of homeliness one gets from a diner. Nalu means “wave” in Hawaiian, and the all-day breakfast and craft ale list make for happy tums, while the snug wooden booths and bleached walls (covered with whimsical art pieces) nurture good thoughts.
What to order: the pancakes have acquired folkloric legend status in these parts – fluffy, huge, buttery.
Dunkerstraße 80A, 10437 Berlin, Germanynalu-diner.de
The Fremont Diner, Sonoma, California
Left: The Fremont Diner. Photograph by Mr Michael B Woolsey. Right: cracklin’. Photograph by Mr Greg Robison
This fortuitous resting spot on the highway between Sonoma and Napa in California is housed in a whitewashed clapboard shack that evokes the origins of the American West. The Fremont is a farm-to-table roadside diner – think old-fashioned comfort food and fries – where local staff serve locally sourced ingredients. The indoor tables are cosy, and during busier weekends and summer months, the outside area is fun and festive. Stick your nose deep into the menu, and try dishes with strange names, such as Hangtown fry (scrambled eggs and deep-fried oysters), washed down with local beer.
What to order: from the fryer, try the cracklin’ (if just for the dill pickle spice), or the oyster sandwich.
2686 Fremont Drive, Sonoma, CA 95476, USthefremontdiner.com
The Eathouse Diner, Sydney
Left: The Eathouse Diner. Photograph courtesy of The Eathouse Diner. Right: choc molé spiced tart. Photograph by Mr Howard Trang
This joint leans on the more Caribbean side of the Americana spectrum. Turquoise walls and brazen pink laminate tables recall the Gulf of Mexico, and photos of pin-up girls and wooden trinkets give the place an eclectic boho feel. The diner’s concept is to unite regulars through food and drink, with a menu more reflective of new Australian cuisine with an American lilt. Coffee is sourced from local roaster The Golden Cobra, and bread from the celebrated bakery Brickfields. It’s all for sharing and the decor will keep the conversation snowballing for hours.
What to order: fast-forward to the puddings. The choc molé spiced tart is a mayhem of hazelnuts, Mexican chocolate sauce, mascarpone and candied orange peel.
306 Chalmers Street, Redfern, NSW 2016, Australiaeathousediner.com.au
Little Goat Diner, Chicago
Little Goat Diner and the kimchee and bacon and eggs and pancakes Asian-style breakfast tasty thing. Photographs by Galdones Photography
No fewer than 100 food options jostle shoulders in this modern take on a traditional 1950s diner. Owner Ms Stephanie Izard cemented her name in the Chicago culinary hall of fame with a Top Chef win and subsequent opening of Girl & The Goat (one of the West Side’s most bookable restaurants) back in 2010. Expect eight burgers from eight different meats (including goat), and a menu dominated by diner classics, such as eggs and bacon, plus more unusual pairings, such as kimchi, Cape gooseberries and tamarind jus.
What to order: go for the crunchy eggy yummy thing, if only for the name.
820 West Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60607, USlittlegoatchicago.com
Electric Diner, London
Electric Diner and the signature hot dog. Photographs courtesy of Soho House
Voluptuous red banquettes offer nooks and respite away from the busy Portobello fruit/veg/everything market outside. No expense has been spared in creating a moody and inviting space with a top-notch menu. The food here is classic diner fare – rich, greasy, fatty, moreish and delicious – as you’d expect, though more upmarket London-ish classics, such as bone marrow and brioche buns have made their way onto the menu. This is a hit with the well-heeled locals and is also a good place to grab a bite before heading to the Electric Cinema, one of London’s oldest picture houses, next door.
What to order: anything on the menu will please, but the forte here is the drinks menu, which features great beers and ales, including Belhaven Stout on draft.
191 Portobello Road, London W11 2ED, UKelectricdiner.com