While enjoying breakfast one morning at one of my favorite restaurants, Bonnie Lu’s Country Café in Ojai, I wondered about the difference between a restaurant and a diner. So, when I got home, I asked a couple of friends for their definitions of restaurant and diner.
Dennis said, “All food-eating places can be called a restaurant. Diners are a special sort of restaurant that are a thing of the past.” Pat offered, “Restaurants are a sit-down experience where moderately-priced to expensive cuisine is served. A diner is generally cheaper and serves lesser quality food.”
Not satisfied with their definitions, I decided to read about diners and restaurants.
It seems that there are as many definitions as there are rocks in a quarry. The best article I found is titled “The History of the American Diner.” The author, Joan Russell, had this to say:
The American diner is a home away from home for many Americans. Often open 24 hours a day, the diner is a place to socialize, eat when working a late shift or enjoy a meal any time of day. It is an American icon that has appeared in all facets of popular culture.
The concept of the diner began when Water Scott, a Rhode Island entrepreneur, repurposed a horse-pulled wagon into a car that served sandwiches, coffee, pies, and eggs to people late at night. He quit his job as a printer to sell food from the wagon. Soon other companies followed to produce lunch wagons or early diners.
Worcester, Massachusetts’ T.H. Buckley found that designing and manufacturing lunch cars was more profitable than running one. He is known as the inventor of the diner and owner of the Worcester Lunch Car Company. These early dining cars had large wheels, overhangs, murals, lettering, and frosted glass, while the interior contained basic stoves and an icebox. In the 1900s, there were three companies that manufactured lunch cars — Worcester Lunch Car, Tierney, and O’Mahony.
Later, diners had smaller wheels, larger counters, tile, and bathrooms, and often were permanent establishments, catering to the lunch and night crowd. In 1913 Jerry Mahoney established the first stationary diner. After World War I broke out, diners shifted to catering to women, adding flower boxes and wallpaper, and advertising their food as home-cooked meals.
The streamlined modern design of the diner first appeared in the 1930s in an effort to change their image. The streamlined futuristic designs reflected the modern era. During the Depression, many diners stayed in business due to their low-cost menus. The demand for diners increased after World War II when many servicemen and women returned home. There were over a dozen diner manufacturers.
After World War II, diners implemented Formica countertops, porcelain tiles, leather booths, wood paneling, and terrazzo floors. The look of the diner changed as it spread to the suburbs, implementing stainless steel exteriors, large windows, and wall decor.
I prefer diners to restaurants, especially for breakfast. They are warm, cozy, and casual. There is a diner or two in every town or city in which we lived, and my wife and I frequented them all.
The inspiration for this compendium came while watching re-runs of the 1970s television show “Alice.” Alice would take orders and yell them to the cook, Mel, using a passthrough window into the kitchen. In college, I worked a number of jobs at diners either as a busboy or short-order cook. Back then, we called the passthrough a kitchen hole. I remember the waitress calling out an order for hamburgers. She said, “Two cows, make ’em cry.”
Here is a partial list of terms and phrases you might hear in a diner:
- Abbott and Costello: frank and beans
- Adam and Eve on a raft: poached eggs on toast
- Belly chokers: doughnuts
- Bloodhound in the hay: hot dog with sauerkraut
- Break it and shake it: add an egg to your drink
- Butcher’s revenge: meatloaf
- Drown the kids: boil the eggs
- Family reunion: chicken and egg sandwich
- Flop two: two fried eggs over easy
- Hockey puck: a well-done hamburger
- In the ally: served on the side
- Keep off the grass: hold the lettuce
- Let the sun shine: do not break the yolks in an order of eggs
- Make it cry:add onions
- Mousetrap: a grilled cheese sandwich
- Nervous pudding: a bowl of Jell-O
- Sinkers and suds: donuts and coffee
- Throw it in the mud: add chocolate syrup
- Twist it, choke it, and make it cackle: a chocolate malt with egg
- Two cows, make ’em cry: two burgers with onions
As a kid, who grew up in Hayward, California during the 1950s and 1960s, I have good memories of eating breakfast at diners and sitting at lunch counters drinking malted white cows [vanilla milkshakes with malt]. My favorite diner food was French fries with thick brown gravy. It was served at the Capwell’s lunch counter in Hayward. When asked if I remembered the Capwell’s (or Compton’s) lunch counter correctly, here is what my high school friends said:
Compton’s was attached to Capwell’s and had an archway into it from the store. I don’t remember eating there at all, but my brother Clint remembers us going in there with my mom.
Same, I was just in Hayward 2 weeks ago, and that building and the parking lot are completely gone.
Compton’s was rebuilt as Mervyn’s corporate offices — until Mervyn’s went under. Compton’s fries and gravy with a Coke. When you didn’t give a crap about what you were eating!
I don’t actually remember Compton’s, but I spent many a day after school at the Capwell’s lunch counter, eating fries with brown gravy and a lemon Coke.
I don’t know if I ever dined at Capwell’s. Shopped there a lot but that’s about it. Best burgers by far were from Val’s. Shakes were also a highlight. They’d bring it in a tall glass and leave the overflow in the metal container. Who does that these days? I say ‘were’ because I’ve stopped by there recently and was disappointed (nothing is ever as good as what we remember).
Pring’s was THE place to go after a game. All the jocks were there and so were the cheerleaders/song girls. I remember vividly one of our super-jocks (unnamed here) would table hop and ditch the checks between the seat cushions. I LOVED Casper’s. There were a couple booths but sitting at the counter was the way to go. Whenever I was downtown with my dad, we’d stop there (fond memories). Don’t think anyone has mentioned Doggie Diner. Probably for a good reason.
Linda Conneen Veon
Ila Getz, Kathy Long, and I would spend many happy hours at Compton’s planning out our lives over French fries and gravy and Vanilla Coke. Pring’s was the place to go after games and dances! I look back on those times with such fond memories of an easier way of life. By the way, Ila and I are still best friends 53 years after meeting at HHS summer school.
I remember Friday night cruising on E14th and then going to Pring’s after. Lots of cool cars in the parking lot. After shopping at Capwell’s with my mom, getting a coke at Compton’s. And favorite by far was Casper’s sitting on those stools when I was a kid.
Bill de la Haye
My memory of Compton’s & Capwell’s lunch counter was the same! Definitely, fries smothered in gravy along with their shrimp salad & a coke! I have a craving for those every once in a while! I love that you mentioned it, Randy!!
Karen Wallace Miller
Yep. One and the same, but LOOK at all the fine memories you just gave us thanks, Randy Graham! Didn’t they have a .50 cent minimum (per person) to sit in the booths, otherwise it was counter service?
I don’t remember about the surcharge for the booths, but I couldn’t afford that anyway. Probably why I always went to the counter.
What a memory you have, Karen! I barely remember the PLACE…let alone those details. I remember eating at Compton’s but only with my mom, who would never have sanctioned the fries, gravy & flavored coke feast 🙂 But, oh, the meals at Val’s! Pure heaven !!
I loved sitting at a windowed booth at Compton’s and having fries w/gravy and a flavored coke. Nothing better than teenage giggles and comfort food!!
Only place that served flavored Coke.
Cathy Graves Okerlund
Gail Lauritzen & I used to go to Capwell’s & get the French fries & gravy…then talk about certain boys.
Friday night at Pring’s was always a good place to watch a fight in the parking lot. Somebody was always beating the snot out of someone.
Karen Wallace Miller
That’s because steroids could be ordered out of the back of a comic book…or from muscle magazines. They weren’t regulated back then. WOZA, what fun memories from the Hayward gang! We used to go there before the Friday night drag races in Fremont…loved that time.
Buddy Costello, Lol Sorensen, and I went to Pring’s on many a Friday night in our senior year. Pring’s did not like table-hopping high school kids (can’t blame them), and we were occasionally tossed out of Pring’s. Good memories.
Christine Graves Klykken
Is that the place that had a rent a cop outside to keep the line orderly?
Chris, yes, there was. Often times he would stand near the cash register with his thumbs hooked into his belt. Once, he chased Lol, Buddy, and me into the parking lot, shouting never to come back again. I think his name was Raymond Antonucci. I will profusely apologize for our behavior if I ever run into him again. He didn’t get paid enough to put up with our shenanigans.
Christine Graves Klykken
I remember his name was Officer Bates. Of course, we called him Master Bates. Such a nice crowd. I think after we were asked to leave a few times, we found a pizza place that was very small and family-owned. It seems like it became our personal spot, and there weren’t any adults hassling us.
I’m not sure I know anyone who didn’t get tossed out of Pring’s
Karen Wallace Miller
Wanda – yep even me…I was with the wrong (right) crowd.
LOL … me too, Karen. And we were the Little Angels, weren’t we ???
Compton’s fries & gravy, yum. Also, the salty fries at Foster Freeze on Castro Valley Boulevard dipped in a vanilla shake!
Fries with gravy was Capwell’s, for sure. I don’t remember Compton’s. My mom LOVED them. We had poutine in Hayward before anybody knew what poutine was! (Sans the cheese curds of course — not sure you could give cheese curds away). I feel compelled to give a shout-out to Frank’s Footers in Castro Valley. The onions on the burgers gave you something to think about during a long afternoon pumping gas at the Shell station.
Pring’s was fun and had pretty good food. Val’s had good food as well, but my go-to places were Casper’s and a Mom and Pop pizza place on B Street across from the plunge swimming pool. I also spent time at A&W loved their root beer.
Not a true diner, but nothing, and I mean NOTHING, beat a Casper’s hot dog or a Val’s steak sandwich and a milkshake.
They had great steak fries too.
Greg, I’ve often said that if I ate meat again, my first bite would be a Casper’s hot dog (or two).
The best memory of mine is of Casper’s. I can still picture the gal behind the counter opening the silver metallic door and bringing out those hot steaming buns and slicing the tomato wedges at incredible speed. My grandkids have gotten the “I remember.….” quite a few times about Casper’s when we do hot dogs.
Pring’s and Val’s for sure, and I sort of remember Compton’s, which, off-topic, reminded me of going downstairs at Capwell’s and listening to records. Not quite a diner, but would go by Pring’s and check out the parking lot to see who was there (besides Antanoochi, of course) on the way to Round Table Pizza. Sat around and laughed about how we just saw Rand, Lol, and Buddy get 86’d from Pring’s!
All responding surely gave their best recall of those bygone days/meals at Compton’s. My recall is that Compton’s was a separate operation from Capwell’s with a walk through accommodation — a single building. A cut above the fast-food type of eatery. The exterior with its waist-high glass windows was slightly above average compared to Walgreens, Casper’s, Haymont’s small eatery, ¼ Pound Giant Burger, and the like.
Now for a great meat and potato meal, all went to Emil Villa’s for ribs, fries, and chocolate cream pie. For those of us that lived around or above Kelly/B Street and Center (just down from the Batteate Trucking Company yard that hauled livestock and had a giant grease spot along Center street, but an icon of the area that existed before the area matured) the best burger in town was and still is Val’s.
I recall the small cinder block 10×24 grill where the fat Elvis-type cook flipped burgers with his ass against the countertop. He knew all that entered. It was not a problem that the place was small, that you squeezed in to take a counter seat, and that you had that fat ass moving left to right on the other side of the counter making fries, burgers, and whipping around to place those treats at face level…or dropping them into a white bag to be embraced as they were carried to the car bound for the family dinner table.
Then for a Friday night treat, off to the A&W in Castro Valley, that iced up mug with the contents that really tasted of ROOT BEER, those burgers and fries hanging on for dear life off the side of the car on a questionably placed tray gripping onto the slight rise of the glass window and propped up by a bottom leg against the door skin.
Then add CAR HOPS on roller skates, hot summer nights, and local regulars sitting back in their oversized cars listening to period-correct music. Does it get any better than that? Heck, for those vegan types, back then, there was an old farmer across the street with a hut where he sold his own grown vegetables, and I recall them to be great. He was friendly towards the car hop gals and gave them his inventory at times.
The lyrics to the 1968 song, “Those Were The Days,” say it all:
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way
To my friends young and old – May the year 2020 be your best year yet!