I put on about ten pounds my freshman year of college, and a lot of that was thanks to my regular lunch at Louis’ Restaurant (and, in particular, their eggplant parmesian sub with a small fries), a greasy spoon favorite for generations of students. Louis’ was then still run by the gnomic perpetually irritated Louis Gianfrancesco, who started it with his brother in the late ‘40s. That was the heyday of the American diner, before a Mixmaster salesman named Ray Kroc came calling at a hamburger joint in San Bernandino, California, to find out why they were buying so many milkshake machines. The McDonald brothers, Dick and Maurice, told him it was because they sold so many milkshakes and simply wore out the Mixmasters. Kroc listened and got an idea, one which would eventually lead to a grease-powered empire of vast global reach. The diner, like the hamburger, was a late nineteenth century invention (although partisans of Louis Lassen, the New Haven lunch counter proprietor widely credited with inventing the burger, might place the date a few years later). Diners grew out of lunch wagons, which were literally hauled into place where there would be hungry workmen, then hauled away at night. (The Haven Brothers Diner in Providence still follows this model.) As diners got fancier — more lights, more offerings, more running water — they slowly expanded to mimic the dining cars of Pullman pullman trains, then expanded further, gaining the whizbang chrome and neon that define the classic, iconic diner. A whole industry sprang up around creating diners (and some of the pioneers are still in business today), but the reign of the diners would soon be over.
Restaurants are classic immigrant businesses; the Gianfrancesco brothers arrived from Italy in 1936 and started their diner ten years later. But when the interstate highway system arrived, things started to change. America became a more mobile society; drive-throughs and fast food became more popular in a more car-oriented society. Chain restaurants — most likely clean, with food you could rely on to be consistantly mediocre from Maine to Montana — became more and more popular. And the quirky individual restaurants, the chowhound havens and roadfood gems, started to die off.
Providence is rich in diners, but even so, diners are museum items. We love the look of diners, or McDonald’s wouldn’t have tried dinerizing some of its restaurants. It’s hard to make money off diners (which cater to a breakfast and lunch trade), or McDonald’s wouldn’t have abandoned the experiment. Still, hope springs eternal. Tod Murphy, a Vermont entrepreneur, thinks he can take Alice Waters‘ philosophy of locally grown food and bring it to the blue-plate special. His Farmer’s Diner in Vermont seems to be successful. Seventy percent of the food comes from local farms, the diner turns a profit, and Murphy hopes to take the idea national.
Ray Kroc took the McDonald brothers’ name away from them (although they got a million dollars a piece, after taxes, and they don’t seem to have been embittered at having to change their original restaurant’s name to "the Big M"), and in 1962 he opened a McDonald’s franchise down the block. In 1972, the Big M went under. The building was torn down; today it’s a museum. A gorgeous 1933 diner, Louis’ Diner (as opposed to Louis’ Restaurant, where the coffee is cheap and the fries are greasy) has been shipped down to anchor the American Diner Museum. And a few months ago, the historic Ideal Diner in Wilmington was available free for any takers willing to move the building (link via Slacktivist). Nobody wanted it.
I wish Tod Murphy luck.