These Mail-Order Diners Helped Define Roadside Eating. Now They're Disappearing.
There's a reason why so many vintage diners look the same. They are.
"I'LL GET A NUMBER FOUR WITH A SIDE OF BARBECUE SAUCE AND A CHOCOLATE SHAKE." Take any highway exit, pull into the nearest diner, say these magic words, and you'll get some recognizable combination of sandwiched meat and fried potatoes.
Consider it American dialect, a customary language taught to children from the front seat of a car on family road trips. In the Land of Opportunity, roadside dining is all but defined by simplicity and familiarity. And that familiarity, like all things Americana, is completely manufactured.
Before Golden Arches and Double-Doubles, America's appetite for burgers and fries was whetted by diners. And while diners were birthed in New England and popularized in Jersey, the forgotten hero of our nation's culinary backstory is Wichita, Kansas -- a burger-loving town that helped every corner of the nation get a taste. If the iconic diner experience feels codified and eerily similar -- like you're walking into the same building every time you stop off for a greasy-spoon breakfast -- well, you might not be too far off. And you can probably thank Wichita for that, too.
By the late 1930s, Wichita's White Castle had made a dent in Midwest culture. Founded in 1921, it was the earliest known assembly-line fast-food chain where the experience was the same at each location. That included the look: White Castle locations were manufactured as ready-made buildings that were dropped off at new branches. Still, their reach had limits.
Enter Arthur Valentine, a local entrepreneur who specialized in prefabricated lunchrooms. Rather than feeding into the fast-food craze, Valentine focused on designing affordable diner buildings -- fittingly called "Valentine diners" -- that could be shipped anywhere and turned into small businesses. World War II delayed his growth, but by 1947, he had vertically integrated and was ready to soar.
"It didn't really take a lot of money to get a diner started."
Valentine wasn't the first person to market mail-order diners, but at the time all of the prominent manufacturers were based on the East Coast and crafted large structures to serve dense populations. Valentine went smaller and wider with models like the eight-stool Aristocrat, nine-stool Nifty-Nine, 10-stool Master, and window-service-only Burger Bar, all of which appealed to any-sized populations.
Valentine's business largely catered to rural startups in budding towns west of the Mississippi that didn't need a fancy setup, and his business was devoted to helping others achieve their own American Dream.
"He always wanted to be his own businessman, his own boss, and that was the selling point for these diners," says Blair Tarr, museum curator at the Kansas Historical Society.
The smaller models could be operated with only one or two employees, and Valentine would even extend credit to buyers to get them on their feet. "This was one of the things that made it popular during the Depression years and after World War II: that it didn't really take a lot of money to get a diner started."
It helped that Valentine hit his stride as the Great American Road Trip was being born. The growing US highway system welcomed the Automobile Age as people hit the pavement to escape the Dust Bowl and explore new areas because, well, that's a thing they could suddenly do. Motorists quickly learned that long-distance travel requires some stops, and along middle-of-nowhere routes there wasn't much to choose from.
Small Valentine diner models were perfect candidates to fill the void, with diners popping up in the '40s and '50s along stretches of highway. It's an idyllic scene -- a barren desert road made colorful by a series of identical diners spaced along the route -- that made Route 66 hot enough to sing about and build an entire movie franchise around.
Valentines emerged as road trip cornerstones, but travelers weren't their only clientele and empty desert towns weren't their only locales. "A small diner became a meeting place for the community," Tarr explains, noting that some were the only restaurants in their towns. "You could usually count in the morning the locals coming in and, if nothing else, having coffee and maybe some small breakfast and chewing the fat with the other locals."
As with many of the era's nostalgic touchstones, though, the diner found itself eclipsed. Interstates meant cars zipping past small towns without stopping. Booming fast-food chains became the go-to pit stop. And while Valentine introduced a dozen different diner models, they couldn't keep up with the changing times.
"They make a go of it for a while, but at that time, the idea of having a 12-seat diner becomes unworkable," Tarr says. "They keep trying to make adjustments for a larger market, but by 1974, the business is essentially over."
In the decades that followed, Valentine diners began to vanish. But they're not completely gone.
Suzie Q Cafe in Mason City, Iowa, belongs to a diminishing club of authentic Valentines. It's a Little Chef, one of the smallest and most recognizable models that Valentine manufactured. This particular diner arrived in Mason City in the late '40s; a few generations and several owners later, it's a community staple known for its retro design and juicy Spic-N-Span pork tenderloin.
Tahmyrah Lytle and her business partner bought and remodeled Suzie Q last year. They were only open for three weeks before COVID-19 restrictions forced them to temporarily close, but Lytle is unwilling to let her diner meet the same fate of so many other Valentines.
"Being the steward of this piece of history, this living piece of history, and knowing that this is an artifact of the Great Depression [is so special]," says Lytle. "It's like the manifestation of a dream from oh so long ago and I think that's so romantic. 'Valentine' is very befitting."
That heart-shaped dream lives on in a smattering of tight-knit communities beyond Mason City. Finding an authentic Valentine requires some sleuthing after many were replicated, abandoned, repurposed, or lost completely, but a handful are going strong, from Sugar Shack Diner in Rudyard, Montana, to The Lucky Dog Diner in Venice, Florida, and Dave's Diner in Gardiner, Maine.
Dot's Diner, another Little Chef model, now rests at The Shady Dell, a vintage trailer park and retro vacation spot in Bisbee, Arizona. The Broadway Diner, a Double Deluxe model in Columbia, Missouri, is a reminder of the college town's history and home of the famous "Stretch," a messy plate of hash browns layered with eggs, cheese, chili, green peppers, and onions. In Enid, Oklahoma, Lenox Drive In satisfies locals with classic burgers and cherry limeades from the window of a Burger Bar building. The model of Cindy's Diner in Fort Wayne, Indiana, hasn't been verified -- perhaps it's one of Valentine's custom-built structures -- but regardless, they proudly "serve the whole world, 15 at a time." And Stacy's Restaurant and Brint's Diner carry on the history in Valentine's home state, posted up in Junction City and Wichita, respectively.
These torchbearers -- along with the countless retrofuturistic New American restaurants that emulate their kitsch -- are a testament to Valentine's legacy, one as important to roadside Americana as horn-rimmed glasses on a salty waitress. Arthur Valentine created a universal venue that helped burgers, fries, and shakes become mandatory road trip fare nationwide; now, his surviving diners are tasty time capsules of America's post-war boom. And when you see one, it's best you stop.
After all, any restaurant can pull inspiration from Valentines, but there's just nothing like the real thing.