The light had a quality to which I was unaccustomed — holding in its still-muted rays, the day not yet fully awakened. It was 6 a.m., and I was headed to Henry’s Diner for breakfast. A crowd waited for the bus on Cherry Street near Church, but for the most part, the streets were empty. It was quiet; I was startled when a car backfired in the distance.
Over the past few years, I have eaten at diners whenever I’ve had the chance — probably 25 just in the last year. I can’t say this has been good for my health, but I’m too fascinated with them to stop. I don’t think I’m alone.
Didi Barrett, the assemblyperson for New York’s 106th district, made a tour of 11 diners this spring in an attempt to be accessible — or appear accessible — to her constituents. The tour capitalized on what seems to be a widespread feeling that diners are quintessentially American.
But what is it that makes a diner a diner, and so particularly American? To whom did Barrett become accessible by making a tour of diners? And what makes someone who dines in a diner a “diner person”?
I pondered these questions as I headed, still groggy, to Henry’s to eat and take in the morning scene — a scene with a lot of history behind it.
The American Diner Museum, based in Providence, R.I, is devoted to celebrating the historical importance of diners. According to its website, the first diner was established in 1872 in Providence by Walter Scott. Out of a covered wagon, he served “late night lunch” to customers who ate sitting on the curb — imagine a late-19th-century food truck that catered to urban workers who had few other affordable dining options.
This initial operation led to other “rolling restaurants.” When cities began placing restrictions on roving street vendors, the stationary dining car and the prefabricated diner were born.
Because diners had evolved from Scott’s late-night-lunch wagon, they were generally considered inhospitable to women. However, by the time Henry Couture opened Henry’s Diner in 1925, proprietors had begun to try to attract the ladies — which the modern Henry’s notes on its website. Couture added feminine touches, putting waffles on the menu and attaching flower boxes to the windows.
The Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company manufactured Couture’s dining car. The O’Mahony Company — whose slogan was “In Our Line We Lead the World” — was one of the largest diner manufacturers and operated from 1913 to 1956. Andrew Hurley explains in his book, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in Post War Consumer Culture, that the O’Mahony Company was especially innovative in design following World War II — experimenting with new materials and incorporating mirrored ceilings to create an illusion of space and luxury. After the war, diners became sleeker in design, reflecting the “futuristic” aesthetics of the time.
The rapid population growth of the postwar era resulted in a proliferation of diners. An advertisement for O’Mahony dining cars from the 1940s capitalized on the changing American landscape: “Desirable locations are plentiful. Hundreds of miles of new highways and innumerable towns throughout the country await the establishment of these modern eating places,” it barked. While diners had initially opened in cities to provide meals for industrial workers, they were marketed as part of the new middle-class American landscape.
By 1969, when a fire forced Henry’s then-owners Frank and Roberta Goldstein to close and rebuild, the diner had already undergone a number of structural changes. Today, virtually the entire original dining car is gone — there’s a green stucco façade, no exterior hint of a dining car. Inside, however, the original curved skeleton is still visible.
During the 1970s, as fast-food restaurants became increasingly popular, many diners built up around their original structures and tried to pass as family restaurants rather than unfashionable “greasy spoons.” The American Diner Museum explains that this led to the destruction of many dinning cars.
Naomi and Bill Maglaris have owned Henry’s Diner since 2004 and have added Greek items to the menu. The Burlington Free Press recently reported that the couple also owns Arcadia Diner in South Burlington and, with Bob Campolungo, the Apollo Diner in Milton, Athena Diner in St. Albans and Athens Diner in Colchester.
Sitting at the counter, I ordered French toast and watched the cook. He whistled while laying bacon out on the grill, dipping bread into an egg mixture and using a device that dispenses batter into perfectly round pancakes with the push of a lever. I listened to the sound of coffee being brewed, of plates being set on the counter and of the two young tourists next to me speaking in French.
An older man, reading a newspaper, sat at the booth closest to the door and seemed to be exceedingly comfortable. Unprompted, he directed people to the bathroom, and when a couple paused for a moment at the door, he told them they could sit down: “Wherever’s fine.”
When the waitress had a free moment, she chatted with the man about a vacation she’s planning to Mexico, and the weather.
The cook stacked my French toast into a pile and cut through it with his spatula. A moment later, I was eating.
The tourists next to me finished their food and got ready to leave. In a booth, another young couple leaned toward one another across their breakfasts. I felt like an uninvited guest, an intruder into the goings-on of this very early morning.
Yet I’ve been to diners in the very early morning before. I’ve been one half of a young couple, still awake from the night before and going out for breakfast. I have sat, sleepy, on sticky vinyl booths in a diner full of retirees. I remember feeling like the diner was shrouding me, shrouding all of us, in an easy quiet as we ordered and ate our breakfasts. In my exhaustion, I was comforted by the unassuming anonymity of the diner — and by the ease of ordering, the speed with which the food came, and how little was demanded of me.
This feeling made me reluctant to interrupt the quiet of anyone else’s very early morning. So I finished my French toast, paid and left without making conversation with anyone.
I returned to Henry’s the next morning. Outside it was raining, and inside there was the feeling of camaraderie that bad weather creates. Two men began talking about the punk-rock music they listened to growing up: the Talking Heads, the Clash, the Ramones.
The man who had been sitting in the first booth reading the day before was sitting there again. After ordering eggs, I turned around to talk to him. His name is Dean Dennis, and he’s been eating breakfast — most often “three eggs, three sausages, toast and that’s it” — at Henry’s for years.
Dennis usually arrives right when the diner opens. “I have my breakfast and then I go about my busy day,” he told me. Doing what? “Some days it’s taking my granddaughter to school, and some days it’s keeping these guys from beating up on little girls in the park,” he said as two police officers passed us, walking toward the register. The cops jokingly threatened that they’d prevent him from buying a new truck. “Whoa, sorry,” Dennis said with a chuckle.
Edita Dzinic, the waitress working that morning, told me she likes opening because it’s “peaceful,” and because she gets to know the customers who come in early. It’s usually just these regulars — “unless,” she says, laughing, “it’s a holiday, and drunk people have ended up sleeping outside waiting for me to open.”
On those days, there’s space for them, too, in a booth or at the counter under the still-rounded ceiling of the old O’Mahony dining car.
Henry’s Diner, 155 Bank Street, Burlington, 862-9010. henrysdiner1925.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Sunrise Breakfast."