Fifties Diners (Drive-ins)

Nothing is more quintessentially American than ’50s-style diners, also known as “drive-in restaurants.” Diners, which were originally referred to as “lunch cars,” first appeared in New Jersey in the 1920s. By the 1950s, diners had grown in popularity, mainly due to their low prices, large menus, and extended hours. After World War II ended and the suburbs began to boom, more and more people began opening diners nationwide. Patrons could eat inside sitting on stools at the “lunch counter” or in the booths, or they could eat outside in their cars. Diners employed “carhops,” young women in short skirts who delivered the food to the cars on roller skates. The food was carried on trays that could attach to car windows. Customers did not have to leave their cars unless they wanted to socialize. Travelers along the new highways could stop off and grab a quick bite at the roadside establishments.

New Jersey was known as the diner capital of the world in the Fifties, boasting more than 600 diners. It had all the right elements like a transportation system, a large working class population and many diner manufacturing companies. More than 350,000 Greeks immigrated to the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century bringing with them the concept of a coffee house and business smarts; most of the more than 500 diners in New York City metropolitan area were Greek-owned.

Diners were the go-to hangout spot for Fifties youth; they were the place that teenagers went in their “souped-up” vehicles after “cruisin” the circuit. Most diners had jukeboxes that allowed young people to listen to their favorite music (rock & roll) and dance the night away. (Think the “Frosty Palace” in the movie Grease, orMel’s” in AmericanGraffiti.) The evenings were alive with rumbling sounds of Chevys, Fords and Dodges creating the most bad-to-the-bone brigade of muscle cars on any given night. The deep throaty sound of the highly modified engines equipped with the popular Isky and Crane roller cams, definitely got your attention when the cars entered the drive-in parking area. And as some may not know, you really don’t drive into the restaurant but your car literally does become your table, with servers coming right to your driver’s door window, some on roller skates.

Since diners were often open all night long, many pop culture depictions of diners involve a feeling of loneliness and isolation. Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks” shows a diner and its few occupants late at night. The painting is based on a diner in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Suzanne Vega, who wrote the ‘80s hit song “Tom’s Diner,” said, “The attraction of the diner is that it’s a sort of a midway point between the street and home.”

“Tom’s Diner” – Suzanne Vega (1981-82) (The song centers on the favorite past-time of patrons of diners – people watching. The “Tom’s Diner” of the song is Tom’s Restaurant in New York City, a mid-20th-century diner on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street. Singer and songwriter Suzanne Vega was reputedly a frequent patron during the early 1980s when she was a student at nearby Barnard College.)

I am sitting In the morning At the diner On the corner
I am waiting At the counter For the man To pour the coffee
And he fills it Only halfway And before I even argue
He is looking Out the window At somebody Coming in
“It is always Nice to see you”
Says the man Behind the counter
To the woman Who has come in
She is shaking Her umbrella
And I look The other way
As they are kissing Their hellos
I’m pretending Not to see them
And Instead I pour the milk

I open Up the paper
There’s a story Of an actor
Who had died While he was drinking
He was no one I had heard of
And I’m turning To the horoscope
And looking For the funnies
When I’m feeling Someone watching me
And so I raise my head
There’s a woman On the outside Looking inside
Does she see me? No she does not Really see me
Cause she sees Her own reflection
And I’m trying Not to notice That she’s hitching Up her skirt
And while she’s Straightening her stockings
Her hair Is getting wet
Oh, this rain It will continue Through the morning
As I’m listening To the bells Of the cathedral
I am thinking Of your voice
And of the midnight picnic
Once upon a time Before the rain began
I finish up my coffee It’s time to catch the train

“Eggs and Sausages,” sung by Tom Waits (1981) (A reviewer of Tom Waits’ music describes the album on which this song is found: “Eggs and Sausage is a typographic music video that follows one man’s lovelorn night at an insomniac’s diner.” Another commentator said: “In a cavalcade of street slang, with an attention to detail characteristic only of the truest of alcoholics, Tom Waits, in the guise of a late-night-hobo-drunkard, takes the listener on an aimless walk up and down the streets of a nameless town, as lost and passively confused as the rain dogs he would sing about years later. Once the walk is finished, when fatigue and a beaten despair call for a halt, this all-American drunken character that shows up in almost all of the songs stumbles inside the all-American bar that shows up in almost all of the songs. This typical Tom Waits location, usually a sleazy diner, is home to the cast of characters that have become a brand of this musician’s narrative, all with their share of skeletons in the closet, and all probably as desperate and maladjusted as the main character himself.”

Nighthawks at the diner
Of Emma’s 49er, there’s a rendezvous
Of strangers around the coffee urn tonight
All the gypsy hacks, the insomniacs
Now the paper’s been read
Now the waitress said
Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie?
In a graveyard charade, a late shift masquerade
Two for a quarter, dime for a dance
With Woolworth rhinestone diamond
Earrings, and a sideway’s glance
And now the register rings
And now the waitress sings
The classified section offered no direction
It’s a cold caffeine in a nicotine cloud
Now the touch of your fingers
Lingers burning in my memory
I’ve been 86ed from your scheme
I’m in a melodramatic nocturnal scene
I’m a refugee from a disconcerted affair
As the lead pipe morning falls
And the waitress calls

“Burgers and Fries and Cherry Pies,” Charlie Pride, (1978) (This song turns back the clock to the time when poodle skirts were in, hair was slicked back in a duck tail and, most importantly, when burgers and fries and cherry pies were accompanied by a delicious milk shake! The song is about a young man’s reflection of a failed relationship and remembering the simple things in life, such as Burgers and Fries, Cherry Pies and drive-in movies on moonlit nights.)

Burgers and fries and cherry pies
it was simple and good back then
Walkin’ in the sand hand to hand
never thinkin’ that it could end

Makin’ our love with the moon above
at the drive-in picture show
When it was burgers and fries and cherry pies
in a world we used to know

Changes come and go
we’ve had our share I know
But it seems we don’t have time for love anymore
All the things we used to say
little things we did each day
While I long to do the things that we did before

It was burgers and fries and cherry pies
it was simple and good back then
Walkin’ in the sand hand in hand
never thinkin’ that it could end

Makin’ our love with the moon above
at the drive-in picture show
When it was burgers and fries and cherry pies
in a world we used to know

Well I’m still the same ole me
and that’s all I’ll ever be
and I’d like to think
that you’re the same ole you

We lost something down the line
that I wish we both could find
While I long to do
the things that we used to do

It was burgers and fries and cherry pies
it was simple and good back then
Walkin’ in the sand hand in hand
never thinkin’ that it could end

Makin’ our love with the moon above
at the drive-in picture show
When it was burgers and fries and cherry pies
in a world we used to know

Burgers and fries and cherry pies
ahh things were so simple back then
Walkin’ in the sand hand in hand
Ohh those good times we used to have
just sitting in the car and

“D’s Diner,” The Les Claypool Frog Brigade (2002) (This song simply describes the diner experience.)

Who wants to go to D’s Diner? (I do)
Who wants to go down to D’s? (me)
There’s a place just off the Gravenstein
Where the milkshakes flow like wine

The best damn breakfast Burrito
You can get anywhere anytime

When I think of them fried egg sandwishes
Well, my mouth starts waterin’ hard

And them sweet potato fries
And onion rings taste just right
‘Cause they don’t fry in lard

Well fancy ketchup, bendy straw
This ain’t your average ma and pa

Grab a booth or sit outside
Have a dose of rainbow pride

Order at the window sill
And watch ’em fry up there on the grill

Bring your daughters, bring your sons
They serve their franks on gourmet buns

Tell your friends to come and see
‘Cause no one serves it up quite like D

House-a-Hula Burger
Got teriyaki pineapple rings

Caliente Burger
Hot chilies that’ll make you sing

Malted buttermilk pancakes all day long
Malted buttermilk pancakes all day long