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Moveable Feasts

Edible Complex


Published May 11, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Anyone who's been on a road trip in America has surveyed the McLandscape. Almost every Interstate exit ramp now leads to a predictable concrete sprawl of competing fast-food franchises. Even Howard Johnson is history. You need an eagle eye, or a guidebook, to pick out the precursor: the local diner. Once ubiquitous, the old-fashioned eatery has become an endangered species.

These days, diners are likely to be either dwarfed by big buildings in an old downtown, or hanging on for dear life at the edge of town. But it's worth going the extra mile for the simple, home-cooked food typically served there. Slide onto a well-worn stool at the counter, or onto a convex cushion in a booth. You don't need to look at the menu -- wedged between the sugar and the napkin dispensers -- to order breakfast anytime, a turkey club or a BLT. For dessert, there's always pie.

America's erstwhile eating establishment is granted "icon" status in an exhibit of diner history currently on display in the offices of Truex, Cullins & Partners, Architects on Battery Street in Burlington. Curator Daniel Zilka of Providence, Rhode Island, definitely sees the big picture: The exhibit's explanatory text describes the diner as the "American equivalent of the Irish pub, Turkish tea house or Japanese sushi bar." In an interview he adds, "All you have to do is say the word 'diner' and you have a picture... the waitresses, the stools, the counters and the style of food that will be served."

But Zilka, a former Burlingtonian, is also an expert in local lore. He earned a Master's in historic preservation from the University of Vermont under Chester Liebs, who had a special interest in roadside architecture. While in the Queen City, Zilka got hooked on diners and briefly considered "putting one next to PhotoGarden," he recalls. He worked at the Shelburne Museum and on the Flynn Theatre and Ethan Allen Homestead restoration projects. He also threw lavish public parties and for three years co-owned the nightclub Border -- now Club Metronome. An achiever with an artistic eye, Zilka says, "I left Burlington because I literally ran out of things to do."

Nevertheless, Vermont is the focus of the Truex exhibit. Many of the images and artifacts on display are local, including a laminated Oasis menu and a collection of matchbook covers from existing and defunct diners all over the state. Last Saturday, Zilka expanded on the informative captions with a history lecture and guided bus tour organized by the Chittenden County Historical Society. The "Diner-A-Round" took in four of the area's working diners: Henry's, the Oasis, the Parkway and Libby's, where the group sat down for a late lunch of hot turkey with stuffing and gravy, mashed potatoes and corn. Vegetarians, including Zilka, got meatless lasagna.

En route, people passed around a scrapbook documenting the 2001 rescue of the Wesson Diner. Zilka came back to the Queen City to help save the Shelburne Road landmark, which by then had been bricked over and transformed. Amey Radcliffe and Stephanie Salmon of Gotham City Graphics spearheaded the liberation, which took about a week, and moved the diner to an "undisclosed" Vermont location, where it remains. Zilka's exhibit includes a photo of the original Wesson's distinctive kitschy sign: a toque-topped chef proffering a platter to passersby.

Most of the color photos in the exhibit were taken by Joe Petrarca, a Truex architect and diner fan. But the black-and-whites, like the one of the Wesson, are credited to the American Diner Museum -- Zilka's "virtual" nonprofit. Back in Providence, he presides over a 9000-square-foot warehouse packed with hundreds of objects culled from diner rescues, including neon clocks, coffee urns, old grills, plates, mugs, booths, stools and two dismantled Sterling diners. The Burlington exhibit's sit-down installation incorporates just a few of these items.

Providence was supposed to provide a permanent home for Zilka's collection, in its new Heritage Harbor Museum. But fundraising for the project has fallen short, and Zilka says the curatorial vision may have to be downsized. "Our plans are contingent upon them," he explains.

Historically speaking, Providence is the perfect spot to memorialize the mobile restaurant. The American diner made its first appearance there in 1872 as a "night lunch cart" serving second- and third-shift workers at the Providence Journal -- in short, it was the original fast-food source. Proprietor Walter Scott, who was also a pressman, hadn't been slinging sandwiches for long when he realized he was onto an idea with serious potential.

"The concept moved up the Blackstone River Valley to Worcester," Zilka explains, where Thomas Buckley became the first large-scale manufacturer of readymade wooden lunch wagons that could be hauled -- by horse -- to eager operators all over the country.

Over time fabrication spread to the New York area, and the takeout model expanded to accommodate sit-down diners with a counter and a few stools. Even as they became more permanent, though, the diners often retained their wheels. Temperance societies embraced the phenomenon because it kept men out of taverns, where they got lunch for free if they were drinking. Zilka says the term "on the wagon" is a reference to the "dry" diner alternative.

Women influenced diner development in other ways, too. Early diner interiors featured varnished oak with etched windows, glass counters and dazzling tile work. After suffrage, diners were further "feminized" with booth seating, lace curtains and other amenities. The rash of lady diner names -- the "Miss Burlington" diner served hungry Queen City citizens where the Roxy is now -- indicated a female-friendly marketing trend.

Architectural movements, particularly the Art Deco and the space-age-inspired moderne, also shaped the diner's design evolution. But the rolling restaurants stayed practical. They perfectly symbolized the American ideal of equal opportunity, both for the working-class diners who frequented them and their self-made owner-operators. Many wannabe restaurateurs who couldn't afford their own establishment bought into the food business with a moveable model. If one location didn't work, they could try another one down the road.

Zilka salvaged dozens of customized sales "orders" for these democratic diners. They amount to a single-page architectural blueprint covered with the salesman's hand-written notes. In the Burlington exhibit, you can see this original paperwork for the Miss Newport, Brattleboro's Royal, the Miss Bellows Falls and Libby's -- Worcester Diner #838, delivered in 1953 -- which was brought to Vermont from Massachusetts.

Coincidentally, the next diner the company made was the Parkway on Williston Road, a.k.a. Worcester Diner #839. The original proprietor died of a heart attack about a year after he opened. His widow, who is still alive, sold the diner to the Lines family. "They owned most of the diners at one time," Zilka says -- the third generation now runs Burlington's Oasis.

Such intimate details make this diner documentary more than just a study of a uniquely American architectural phenomenon. Zilka has lovingly preserved a slice of Vermont cultural history that everyone can appreciate. If Providence can't make room for that, as promised, maybe the Shelburne Museum should clear a place in the parking lot. After all, the Wesson's is somewhere out there in the Vermont woods waiting for a home. Now that would be a Blue Plate Special.