Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: The All-American Diner

January 25, 2024

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The A1 Diner in Gardiner, Maine, here and bottom right, as seen on the eatery’s website.

By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine: The Cook’s Resource, in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard now writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food-related issues. She and her husband, the Resident Wine Maniac, have recently moved to Italy.

Jiggers Diner image from their website

A Jigger’s Diner image, from their website.

WHAT STARTED as a visit to a French supplier of chocolates for La Cuisine, my old shop in Alexandria, Virginia, became an almost annual hosting competition between us (the Resident Wine Maniac and me) and the Panels, the superb chocolatier family outside of Lyon. They, along with our longtime friend Julia Cuvy, would plan a two-week trip to showcase a certain area of France and we would in turn plan one to showcase some uniquely American sights, foods and experiences. This became what I referred to as the La Revanche Français vs The American Revenge competition. We shared things in our respective countries that we would never have tried had we not wanted to explore them with friends whose delight in the experience would be as much fun as the venue itself.

Guided by Stephanie Gorenflo, our baking Cuisinette who knew a thing or two about wonderfully obscure traveling experiences, was a planned road trip to Maine. She told us to take a certain coastal route, replete with wonderful views of New England we would otherwise have  missed. She suggested we stop for lunch at a real American diner in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Jigger’s is one of a surprisingly large handful of original railway-car-sized eateries that still operate independently—and produce good food using local sources where possible. “Les Trois Js” just loved it: Julia had her first old-fashioned Club Sandwich; Jean Claude and my husband both had their pie with a local cherry-vanilla ice cream. Even the coffee in a big mug was good: Les Trois Js all pronounced that it did not taste like a “tisane” (herb tea). A few photos were taken by us and the Jigger’s staff. And of course I had to look up the history of this uniquely American tradition in dining.

An American Original

original diner car diner

An original diner-car-style diner.

Paramount diner that was shipped in pieces

Once the Comet Diner, then Dishes, this Paramount Manufacturing Company diner was shipped in pieces to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1948. It was undergoing restoration as of last summer. / From the Atlas Obscura website.

Although these train-car-sized restaurants were a 20th-century development, their roots lay in late-19th-century moving lunch wagons, according to the writers from Atlas Obscura. Most were pretty scruffy-looking, but there were attempts to fashion the interiors to resemble the slick dining cars from that newfangled form of transportation, the train. These meals on wheels had captured the imagination of the American public. The earliest designer of an easily transportable lunch wagon was Patrick Tierney. When zoning codes prevented these dining wagons from parking in newly developed residential areas (sound familiar?), he developed prefabricated ones that could fit on a sliver of property. He is credited with introducing electric lighting instead of kerosene, attractive tile floors, and,  most important of all, indoor toilets. He may have even coined the term “diner” from his inspiration of the railway dining car.

Although some diners were actually fashioned from old railroad cars, other manufacturers jumped on the trend, and part of the niftiness was that these sleek little eateries could be shipped to their destinations across the US on train flatbeds. It was not until the 1940s that Paramount Manufacturing Company developed a prefabricated diner with options that could be shipped in pieces. This innovation freed the diner from its dining car shape, but the  dining car aesthetics and the nostalgic diner menu remained.

Post-Pandemic Road Trip

A1 dimer image from their Facebook page

The A1 diner in Gardiner, Maine, as shown on their Facebook page.

These diners had another thing in common besides sleek design and low-cost construction—an inexpensive menu. They were supposed to be an Everyman’s dining hall, in theory if not in practice. They gained a reputation for being open early in the morning until late at night to accommodate different worker shifts. Whereas a French or Italian restaurant in the US conferred conviviality along with food, the diner became a symbol of the okayness of solitary eating. Edward Hopper’s painting of NightHawks and the TV series Twin Peaks both evoked this aura. Although the glory years of diners were diminished by the advent of fast-food franchises, there still exist quite a few real diners across the US, like Jiggers. My daughter Tatiana  (otherwise known as the Italy Insider) and her husband drove through Maine on a couple of road trips and have

never forgotten the meal they had at the A1 Diner in Gardiner, Maine, a resurrected 1946 Worcester Dining Car Company diner successfully run by Mike Giberson and Neil Anderson until 2018, when they sold it to longtime employee Aaron Harris. Tatiana even has their cookbook, filled with their quirky recipes and stories. Luckily there are some guides to other diners that are the real deal: Food & Wine’s “Best Diners in Every State” or Thrillist’s offering, “The 21 Best Diners in America,” to name just two. Perhaps you’ll be fortunate and find your own A1 Diner or Jigger’s. In any case, I feel a post-pandemic road trip coming on.

2 thoughts on “Kitchen Detail: The All-American Diner

  1. NANCY P POLLARD says:

    Oh, I am so glad you did. I just reread it myself and have such fond memories of that trip!

  2. Stephanie S Cavanaugh says:

    Loved every bite of this!

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