The 21 Best Diners in America
Whoever first uttered the phrase "American as apple pie" probably did so while perched on a stool at a crowded diner. So that means a diner is somehow more American than apple pie. Diners are essential to the American culinary experience, and the best are the ones that are seemingly divorced from time: They're places where you're likely to be referred to as "hon" as a cross-section of the city's population buzzes around at all hours, coming together under the shared banned of greasy breakfasts served 24/7, burgers fried on an age-old griddle, and, of course, pie.
Some call the diner an endangered species. The 21 best diners in America are proof that sometimes, the best way to embrace change and endure is refusing to change at all. Pass the pie.
The Blue Benn -- a diner that glows azure from its stools to its trim -- was shipped from Jersey to Bennington and assembled on its current spot in 1948 and very little has changed since. Besides an entryway that’s extremely necessary to cover the throngs of hopeful, waiting diners in the Vermont weather, the diner is that original car -- kitchen and all. At most diners, the counter is prime real estate, though here fight for a booth with its wall-mounted jukebox (the counters have them, but it's common knowledge that no one likes to share their old-school country picks with other eaters): 25 cents gets you two songs, and we've officially confirmed that mixed berry pancakes sized larger than your head taste better with Patsy Cline crooning right next to you.
Iowa City's greatest diner wears a lot of hats, gathering place for families, hangover cure for students who should have skipped the last round at college dive Brothers, and community hall among them. Unlike a lot of diners, they have a manifesto, and it includes the names of the local partners they use to get their food (what’s up, Dreesman Buffalo Ranch!), and said food is delicious. Do yourself a favor and get the huevos Epsteinos, a “cross-cultural collision” of homemade chili verde, smoked pork, Parmesan polenta, over-easy eggs, and hash browns. Bluebird calls what it does Midwestern soul food. We're not here to argue, largely because it's rude to do so with a mouth full of eggs Benedict or an Iowa-style tenderloin.
First things first, The Breakfast Club has been serving omelets on the quirky island outside Savannah since 1976, nine years before Judd Nelson threw his fist in the air while strutting across the football field. Jodee Sadowsky, a CIA graduate, has been at the helm for most of that time with a homemade policy governing everything from the Smackwater Jack omelet’s spicy sausage to the toast that’s definitely the most boring part of the, uh, “Emotionally Satisfying!” PMS omelet order, a two-egg omelet loaded with spinach, garlic, mushrooms, and Parm, served with grits, bacon, and that house-made bread. The line’s notoriously long, but, hey, this is the beach, and there are worse places to spend your morning than waiting in the dunes for a seat at this counter.
Brent’s may’ve made its Hollywood debut in The Help and undergone a number of renovations since it first opened its doors in 1946, but this Jackson diner maintains its old-school soda fountain-style and well-worn air of a neighborhood institution. Grab a stool and order a breakfast melt -- two slices of Texas toast housing a fried egg, bacon, and gooey American cheese -- or a grilled bacon & pimento cheese sandwich with spicy, gooey cheese oozing out. If the menu’s overwhelming, just keep sampling until it’s time to drink... Brent’s may look like it could host a sock hop, but it's also hiding Jackson’s best cocktail spot, speakeasy-style, in the back.
There are some who believe Cozy Dog founder Ed Waldmire Jr. invented the corn dog. He didn't. The way he told it, he originally had a variation on the state fair staple in Oklahoma, but it was baked, which A) sounds far too healthy and B) takes way too long. So he jammed a stick in a wiener, dunked it in batter, and fried it. And lo, now we have the corn dog as we know it (unless you believe the folks at Oregon's Pronto Pup, who claim the same thing). At Cozy Dog's legendary diner/drive-in hybrid, you can still grab the (alleged) original, right alongside no-bullshit bacon sandwiches and heaping breakfast specials that clock in at a criminally cheap $4.05. And sure, there are great diners all over Chicago with history, but damned if Cozy Dog doesn't live up to its reputation, functioning as a time warp to days where nobody challenged your claims and a hot dog on a stick was an acceptable breakfast side.
In the center of Pittsburgh's famed foodie haven neighborhood, the Strip District, lies DeLuca's diner. In the center of DeLuca's diner, there's a booth with a plaque that reads "Tom Cruise sat here" (while shooting the 2012 "meh" movie Jack Reacher). But really, Hollywood Tom's old seat is the least interesting thing inside this Yinzer institution. You have the requisite grizzled line cooks and servers, some that look/act like they've been there since the joint opened in 1950. You have the red and white checkered tiled floor and seafoam green, plastic booths that just shriek "classic diner." You have the homestyle food -- with heaping mounds of eggs, bacon, and potatoes (Steel City Breakfast of Champions, as it's called here) being the go-to order, obviously. But most importantly, you have a crowd of locals that truly bleed Black and Gold. This isn't a tourist trap. It's as much of a Pittsburgh mainstay as Mr. Rogers' sweater or Sidney Crosby's jockstrap. Walk in there any morning of the year, and you'll be able to take the cultural temperature of the city (so be wary the morning after a Steelers loss). A worthy diner should be a reflection of the city itself. DeLuca's is the old-fashioned, hearty, hard-working establishment that Pittsburgh deserves. And you deserve to visit, should you ever find yourself between the Three Rivers.
In 1926, Anthony Franks’ $7,500, Jersey-made dining car arrived by rail in Kenosha, finishing its journey to downtown behind a crew of six probably really unhappy horses. The same family ran the diner all the way until 2001 and, two more owners later, little has changed, besides the addition of another dining room (you’ll almost definitely be eating here -- few are lucky enough to land a counter stool) and a larger kitchen. Do as everyone else in Kenosha has for the last 89 years and order a Garbage Plate, that’s as much a legend as the diner itself: five eggs, hash browns, peppers, onions, and one (or three) meats. It also comes with toast, which you won’t be able to eat.
Southie is in the midst of an inarguable transformation, as the siren song of gentrification now plays loudly and on repeat. Yet Galley remains unchanged. When you are hurting, and you need something quick to eat in shame back at your apartment, their sausage, egg, and cheese on an English muffin is the move. But if you’re actually willing to show your face, get the Southie omelet -- full of hash and cheese, it’s a signature dish, and will assist your inarguable transformation back to being a normal functioning person.
In theory, a New York-style diner in San Diego should not work at all. The San Diego attitude's all, "Whatever, brah" and the New York attitude will punch that disposition in the face. But luckily for La Jolla, the NY attitude is nowhere to be found at Harry's, while 12 omelet varieties and bacon pancakes made the trip west. That explains the tons of regulars who show up day after day. Since 1960, the Rudolph family (including the three brothers who currently man the ship) have been treating the faithful to all-day breakfast, along with creative coffee offerings, like a mocha with Mexican chocolate and espresso.
Despite the restaurant tag, Howley’s is an all-classic ‘50s diner, from its red leather counter stools to its neon glow that lights up Dixie Highway. You could say a 2004 renovation updated Patrick Howley’s eponymous spot, but really it just returned the diner to its original 1950 glory. The menu, though, lines upgraded dishes, like crab hash and fresh juice smoothies (remember: you’re in Florida) alongside banana cream pie, berry pie, apple pie, Key lime pie, and all the other pies you’ve dreamed of eating alongside Special Agent Dale Cooper.
In an era when your favorite local dives are closing down and turning into banks, and your favorite local banks and closing down and turning into newer banks, so much of "classic" New York is now relegated to faded memories and Martin Scorsese films. Joe Jr. is nothing special, which is exactly what makes it so exceptional these days. The classic greasy spoon at the corner of Third Ave and 16th Street sticks out like a cavity in an otherwise gleaming pair or big city teeth. It's a relic. It was a "coffee shop" before "coffee shops" became pretentious barista breeding grounds. It's a wood-paneled, barstool bedecked, Platonic ideal of what a diner should look like. But perhaps just as importantly, they serve one of the best basic burgers in the entire city. Sure, it's just griddle-cooked ground beef chuck, American cheese, and a bun that often looks like it was smuggled inside the kitchen via someone's back pocket, but it's still damn good. You don't come to Joe Junior for frills. You come to get away from the frills. And in New York City, in the year of our Lord 2018, the appeal of Joe Jr. cannot be understated.
Hidden on a highway a few miles down a winding forest road from Oregon coast destination Lincoln City, the tiny Otis Cafe does incredible things with omelets, apple-baked ham sandwiches, chicken-fried steak, and biscuits, which come topped with some of the richest sausage gravy known to man. But the claim to fame here is also the real reason to make the trek into Otis: hash browns. Usually no more than a plate-filler thawed and thrown next to a couple eggs. Here the impossibly crispy potatoes get blanketed in and glued together with a generous helping of sharp, locally produced white Cheddar. It's a meal unto itself, but if you're feeling extra frisky you can add bacon, ham, veggies, and eggs to really fill the beast out. Not that you need to. Taken on their own, they more than live up to the legend. Don't skip the pie. But maybe take it to go. You've got some extreme digesting ahead of you, and likely a long drive.
Painted on Palace Diner's facade in yellow letters are the words "Ladies Invited,” which should help illustrate the fact that, as Maine’s oldest diner -- founded in 1927 -- it was around during a time where that might be the answer to a plausible question. With 15 stools, the space is small, and features an equally diminutive menu: eight breakfast items, four sandwiches, and some side dishes. But once you taste the bacon, egg, and cheese deluxe with jalapeños, or the brown butter banana bread, and wash it down with a red birch beer, you won’t need anything else. Satisfied sighs are also invited.
Around since 1948, locals-favorite The Pantry is 1. damn iconic, 2. a place where you have a decent shot at running into Cormac McCarthy, and 3. serves impeccable New Mexican breakfasts, like the Buenos Dias (pantry fries topped with green chile, cheese, and two eggs), and a dinner carne adovada plate using a red chile marinade that makes us weep with nostalgia just thinking of it. The griddle also spits out incredible blue corn cinnamon cakes and buttermilk pancakes stuffed with berries in the morning, while the kitchen makes the transition to lunch with classics both gringo (club sandwiches) and New Mexican, including stellar brisket tacos smothered in salsa and the legendary tortilla burger, which is exactly what would happen if a burger and a burrito hooked up.
Way back in the days when Woodrow Wilson was giving the State of the Union address wearing sweet wire-rimmed glasses, a Greek immigrant named James Christakes opened the Fountain as an ice cream parlor and lunch counter. This lasted three generations until Y2K, when the family sold the place and the new owners re-focused by putting in a full-service kitchen and updating the dining room.Usually, when the original owners sell, a piece of the place dies with them, but -- if anything -- St. Francis has prospered in the last 18 years, mainly thanks to a now-formidable menu with winners like the “Nebulous Potato Thing,” (potatoes, cheese, salsa, green onion, other stuff), fresh strawberry sourdough French toast, and a weirdly impressive array of vegan options.
Diner dreams are made of crisp, griddled hash browns and American cheese-covered thin-pattied burgers dripping American cheese, but the crown jewel of these institutions is diner pie. And Strawn’s has some of the best pie in the entire South, from a diner, restaurant, bakery... whatever. The ice box pies -- there are five standbys: strawberry, coconut, butterscotch, banana, and chocolate, plus the seasonal peach -- are indulgent, decadently sweet, and come buried under a few inches of rich, homemade whipped cream. Strawn’s also has that burger and those hash browns, but go easy: at least two slices of pie are far more important.
When you walk into Tel-Wink, someone will inevitably shout to you “Welcome Home!” Dmitri and Peggy Bokos weren’t born in Houston -- they brought their restaurant industry knowledge with them from Chicago -- but they're right at home here, and Tel-Wink is now a legendary fixture on Telephone Road. Dance with the Tex-Mex jalapeño, sausage & egg breakfast sandwich or the chicken-fried steak, and soon you’ll wish Tel-Wink was home, because you’ll need to lie down immediately.
New Jersey is basically the diner capital of the world, and this list could have easily been dominated by the Garden State's endless offerings. So what separates Tops from the pack? The most iconic restaurant in New Jersey differentiates itself from a run-of-the-mill diner by being a place where you'd actually want to order seafood (it's fresh and is available frequently as a special), as well as the ever-popular meatloaf and beef ribs. Any of their oversized 20+ booths will make it tough for onlookers to watch you sloppily devour their enormous portions, and remember to save room for dessert made by one of their two full-time bakers -- the brownie sundae with homemade hot fudge is a favorite.
Harkening back to the days when "coffee shop" had less to do with cute little flowers in latte foam and everything to do with blue-collar workers perched on stools at a greasy spoon, Travis is a callback to a certain American ideal. It's a place where two eggs, hash browns, toast, a piece of sausage, a hunk of ham, and three slices of bacon will still run you about $6 24/7 and where a sack of six cheeseburgers runs $9.50. About those burgers: They're among the best in Michigan, simple affairs with grilled onions and a bouncy bun that are great any time, but best enjoyed while sitting on the hood of a car at 3am.
If eavesdropping for the inside scoop on where your Derby bets should go is your kind of breakfast activity (it's everyone's... right??), slide into one of Wagner’s well-worn booths. Opened next to Churchill Downs in 1922, the pharmacy/diner is plastered with equine paraphernalia and plays host to the track’s jockeys and trainers, as well as the rest of Louisville’s locals. The star of the simple menu is the predictably named Derby Sandwich, a hot, delicious mess of glazed ham, gooey Swiss, and mayo. Get it, be content, and know that you can go get a bottle of antacid RIGHT IN THE PHARMACY, making this the most convenient diner in which you'll ever eat.
Happiness is seafoam green vinyl booths, pink neon ceiling lights, and non-Wendy’s chocolate Frostys. Winstead's is one of the classic KC places, a must-stop for nostalgia enthusiasts, but also a place with a pretty damn good burger. The patty is Fruit Roll-Ups thin, and subsequently lacks a certain amount of flavor, so you’re going to need to order a double. But there is incredible char, the bun melds nicely with the hot cheese and beef, and the onions are cooked in that buttery, peppery diner-style so often emulated, seldom done this wonderfully. Also, they put lime sherbet in their cherry limeade. After all, this a classic soda fountain, too.