Bryson's America: The cheeseburger that changed the world

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The Independent Culture
A COUPLE of years ago when I was sent ahead of the rest of the family to scout out a place for us to live in the States, I included the town of Adams, Massachusetts, as a possibility because it had a wonderful old-fashioned diner on Main Street.

Unfortunately, I was compelled to remove Adams from the shortlist when I was unable to recall a single other virtue in the town, possibly because it didn't have any. Still, I believe I would have been happy there. Diners tend to take you like that.

Diners were once immensely popular, but like so much else they have become increasingly rare. Their heyday was the years just after the First World War, when Prohibition shut the taverns and people needed someplace else to go for lunch. From a business point of view, diners were an appealing proposition. They were cheap to buy and maintain and, because they were factory built, they came virtually complete. Having acquired one, all you had to do was set it on a level piece of ground, hook up water and electricity, and you were in business. If trade didn't materialize, you simply loaded it on to a flatbed truck and tried your luck elsewhere. By the late 1920s, about a score of companies were mass-producing diners, nearly all in a streamlined art-deco style known as moderne, with gleaming stainless-steel exteriors, and insides of polished dark wood and more shiny metal.

Diner enthusiasts are a bit like trainspotters. They can tell you whether a particular diner is a 1947 Kullman Blue Comet or a 1932 Worcester Semi- Streamliner. They appreciate the design details that mark out a Ralph Musi from a Starlite or an O'Mahoney, and will drive long distances to visit a rare and well-preserved Sterling, of which only 73 were made, between 1935 and 1941.

The one thing they don't talk about much is food. This is because diner food is generally much the same wherever you go - which is to say, not very good. My wife and children refuse to accompany me to diners for this very reason. What they fail to appreciate is that going to diners is not about eating; it's about saving a crucial part of America's heritage.

We didn't have diners in Iowa when I was growing up. They were mostly an East Coast phenomenon, just as restaurants built in the shape of things (pigs, doughnuts, bowler hats) were a West Coast phenomenon. The closest thing we had to a diner was a place down by the river called Ernie's Grill. Everything about it was squalid and greasy, including Ernie, and the food was appalling, but it did have many of the features of a diner, notably a long counter with twirly stools, a wall of booths, patrons who looked as if they had just come in from killing big animals in the woods (possibly with their teeth), and a fondness for diner-style lingo. When you ordered, the waitress would call out to the kitchen in some indecipherable code, "Two spots on a dot, easy on the Brylcreem, dribble on the griddle and cough twice in a bucket," or something similarly alarming and mystifying.

But Ernie's was in a square, squat, anonymous brick building, which patently lacked the streamlined glamour of a classic diner. So when, decades later, I was sent to look for a liveable community in New England, a diner was one of the things high on my shopping list. Alas, they are getting harder and harder to find.

Hanover, where we eventually settled, does have a venerable eating establishment called Lou's, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. It has the superficial ambience of a diner, but the menu features items like quiches and fajitas, and it prides itself on the freshness of its lettuce. The customers are all well-heeled and yuppieish. You can't imagine any of them climbing into a car with a deer lashed to the bonnet.

So you may conceive my joy when, about six months after we moved to Hanover, I was driving one day through the nearby community of White River Junction, and passed an establishment called the Four Aces. Impulsively, I went in and found an early post-war Worcester in nearly mint condition. It was wonderful. Even the food was pretty good, which was a bit disappointing, but I have learned to live with it.

No one knows how many diners like this remain. Partly it is a problem of definition. A diner is essentially any place that serves food and calls itself a diner. Under the broadest definition, there are still about 2,500 diners in the United States. But no more than a 1,000 of these, at the outside, are what could be called "classic" diners, and the number of those diminishes yearly.

Some time ago Phil's, the oldest diner in California, closed. It had been in business in north Los Angeles since 1926, making it, by Californian standards, as venerable as Stonehenge, but its passing was hardly noted.

Most diners can't compete with the big fast-food chains. A traditional diner is small, with perhaps eight booths and a dozen or so counter spaces, and because they provide waitress service and individually cooked meals their operating costs are higher. Most diners are also old, and in America it is almost always much cheaper to replace than to preserve.

An enthusiast who bought an old diner in Jersey City, New Jersey, discovered to his horror that it would cost $900,000 - perhaps 20 years' worth of potential profits - to bring it back to its original condition. Much cheaper to tear it down and turn the site over to a Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald's.

What you get a lot of instead these days are ersatz diners. The last time I was in Chicago I was taken to a place called Ed Debevic's, where the waitresses wore badges giving their names as Bubbles and Blondie and where the walls were lined with Ed's bowling trophies. But there never was an Ed Debevic. He was just the creative figment of a marketing man. No matter. Ed's was humming. A dining public that had disdained genuine diners when they stood on every corner was now queuing to get into a make-believe one. It mystifies me beyond measure, but this is a common phenomenon in America.

You find it at Disneyland, where people flock to stroll up and down a Main Street just like the ones they abandoned wholesale in the 1950s for shopping malls. It happens at restored colonial villages like Williamsburg, Virginia, or Mystic, Connecticut, where visitors pay good money to savour the sort of tranquil village atmosphere that they long ago fled for the happy sprawl of suburbs, I can't begin to account for it, but it appears, to coin a phrase, that Americans really only want something when it isn't really real.

But that is another column. We shall return to this subject next time. Meanwhile, I am off to the Four Aces while the chance is still there. There aren't any waitresses called Bubbles, but the bowling trophies are real.

`Notes from a Big Country', Doubleday, pounds 16.99