Charming, novel and quintessentially American: the humble diner is in many ways to the US what the pub is for Britons. They may all be built from the same blueprint, with their booth seating, neons signage and train carriage-esque format; and offer up the same formula - cheap food at all hours - but every diner has its own, distinct soul.
They look like rail carriages, incidentally, because they essentially once were - in some cases converted from such into mobile eateries, and otherwise built to replicate them. To learn of their beginnings, we must travel back to the late 19th century and then to New Jersey, which remains America's undisputed diner capital to this day.
The cheap-and-cheerful concept of quick meals for those on the go can be traced back to 1872 when businessman Walter Scott started selling food from his horse-drawn wagon to employees of a newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island.
Its popularity prompted the production of more, which came to be known as "lunch wagons" and later "night lunch wagons", as coined by the first inventor to patent the idea in 1893, a man by the name of Charles Palmer.
They were successful largely because they were economical, both for businesses to operate and for the patrons they served, and they catered for a workforce that was increasingly toiling at all hours of the day and night.
But with the rise of the automobile and as modern streets developed, new laws emerged that clamped down on mobile roadside food vendors. Businesses were required to find fixed locations, but many couldn't afford to open as restaurants.
Enter the diner as we recognise it today, the brainchild of Irish-American inventor Patrick Tierney, who first coined the term. He built ready-made stationary models that were transported to their new owners via rail, at $1,000 a pop, with flexible financing options.
They were essentially a hybrid of the dining carriages on the trains that towed them from the factory, and traditional lunch wagons - and crucially, had the first indoor restrooms.
As time went on, diners thrived and continued to borrow their design from trains. Chrome-effect outfits modelled after the Burlington Zephyr train, for example, came into fashion from the mid to late 1930s.
Another early innovator of the diner was New Jersey-based Jerry O’Mahony who produced 2,000 of them between 1917 and 1941. His company was responsible for New Jersey's oldest remaining example, the Summit Diner, which opened opposite a train station in 1939 and according to legend, counted Ernest Hemingway as a regular.
It wasn't until the 1940s that diners were designed and shipped in pieces rather than whole, an Ikea-style solution that was pioneered by a company called Paramount Diner - also responsible for the first of those stainless steel exteriors. This new production method meant that diners could expand in size beyond the confines of a rail carriage, to feed growing demand.
Paramount was also the manufacturer that made the now-famed White Mana, which was debuted at the 1939 World's Fair in Queens and presented as "the diner of the future" and "an introduction to fast food". It then opened for business in Jersey City, where it still serves up burgers - upwards of 3,000 a week - and milkshakes.
Its open-plan kitchen layout, according to New Jersey Online, was "designed so the cook/server wouldn't have to walk more than three steps in any direction to cook a burger, draw a soda and serve a customer".
New Jersey was always America's diner capital. A large working class population and plenty of comers and goers trundling through its then-advanced transport system fed the trade. Even through the Great Depression of the 1930s, the low-priced meals ensured their collective survival. For a time.
At their peak during the 1950s, America had more than 6,000 New Jersey-built diners scattered throughout the north-east. Today, only around 2,000 remain, but some are now protected. The Modern Diner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was the first to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1978.
Author Michael C. Gabriele, who wrote The History of Diners in New Jersey, wistfully describes: "The silver Airstreams and neon signs of the classic American diner brighten New Jersey's highways and Main Streets.
"But the intrinsic role they have played in the state's culture and industry for more than one hundred years is much more than eggs-over-easy and coffee. Diners are the state's ultimate gathering places - at any moment, high school students, CEOs, construction workers and tourists might be found at a counter chatting with the waitresses and line cooks."
Gabriele concedes the industry is "all but gone today", although the highest concentration of diners in the country (600) remains in New Jersey. And, curiously enough, a scattering from their heydey made it off US soil and still survive elsewhere in the world.
Disneyland Paris operates a 1947 model from New Jersey which closed there in 1995 and was packed up to be repurposed in France as what is now called Café des Cascadeurs.
Even closer to home? Head on down to South Derbyshire where you'll find the '50s American Diner in Swadlincote (above), which was shipped over from Massachusetts having opened there in 1950, and remains in business here to this day, open Friday to Sunday.
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