Opinion: The American diner tradition continues

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We eat differently on vacation than at home. At home, breakfast is cereal with sliced banana, orange juice and coffee. On vacation we eat out.

During our recent stay at Daytona Beach, we ate twice at the Starlight Diner, a genuine throwback to the 1930s and ’40s when these narrow aluminum and chrome eateries populated many of our eastern cities.

Up front, the food is good, abundant and inexpensive. Bacon, eggs, pancakes and coffee for two for about 12 bucks, including tip. I’m told their burgers and fries are good too, although we ate lunch and dinner elsewhere.

Diners are solidly American. They look like train cars for a reason. In the 1930s an auto body designer and illustrator by the name of Roland Stickney designed the first diner after the streamlined Burlington Zephyr train. J.D. Judkins Co. of Merrimac, Mass., bought the design and started building the Zephyr Streamliner diners in 1936.

They varied in length from 40 feet to 52 feet, but everything else was pretty much standard. The entrance was in the middle at the top of several steps. Booths lined the walls on both ends, and a long counter with stools graced the other side. A juke box was usually stuffed into one corner, although at the Starlight, it is just inside the door. The music is early ’50s rock.

Judkins built diners until 1942 when the nation’s steel and aluminum was diverted to the war effort. The factory never reopened, and the buildings were later demolished. One unfinished diner sat abandoned on the grounds for years.

Today, only two of the original Zephyr Streamliner diners still exist: in Salem, Mass., and the Modern Diner in Pawtucket, R.I. Look-alikes abound, however, and most adhere closely to the original design. The Starlight is one of these.

I’m told the menus are consistent with the original bill of fare as well: burgers and fries, a full-blown breakfast, homemade pies, and in New York and Chicago, cheesecake. Some still boast a “Blue Plate Special.”

Most are open 24 hours a day, too, a routine started when they catered to the late-night party crowd in one part of town, and the late shift factory workers on the other side.

It’s refreshing to note diners still dot the American landscape even though the original design was manufactured for a mere six years. That’s a whole lot better than the train that inspired it.


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