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RI FOOD & DINING

Old-school diners dish up more than just homestyle food

You can walk in alone, but there’s something about diners that won’t let you be lonely

Bishop’s 4th Street Diner in Newport is a mainstay of the area, but after 54 years in the same spot, they have to move because of a development project. Jim Peckham of Newport, a Vietnam veteran and Bishop's regular for years, enjoys his coffee after breakfast.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — You can keep your five-star restaurants, with their heart-stopping prices and pretentions. Find me a stool along a counter where the waitstaff bustle by with greetings, slap down menus that run for pages, pour hot coffee into porcelain mugs, and serve up something delicious with a side of banter.

If you’ve been craving human connection, head to an old-school diner. You can walk in alone, but there’s something about a diner that won’t let you be lonely.

Maybe it’s the way the waitstaff and the dishwashers and cooks and customers are all together in the same little fishbowl. Maybe it’s the way these original diners were designed, with the curved ceilings and long narrow interior like a railroad car that makes it feel like you’re being hugged. The narrow booths along wide windows and the counter stools placed just about 24 inches apart invite conversation among strangers. No matter who you are, everyone is equal in a diner.

“You overhear so many conversations, and generally speaking, you are invited to join in on what somebody says,” said Richard J. S. Gutman, diner aficionado and author of books about diners. “It’s a meeting place where you are discussing whatever’s going on.”

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Gutman fell in love with diners as a child growing up in Pennsylvania and began collecting memorabilia when he was an architecture student at Cornell University in 1970 writing his thesis on diners. He turned that passion into preservation, working with museums, entrepreneurs, and historic groups, and serving as a consultant for diners being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. When he was the director and curator of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University, he also mounted an exhibition on diners.

So, Gutman knows: There are diners, and then there are diners, those wood-and-steel Deco and mid-century descendants of the first lunch wagon serving up fast, cheap, homemade meals.

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“It’s the combination of architecture that’s utilitarian and confined, it often looks like a vehicle, but it isn’t, and it has that homestyle food with a variety of good prices and a place where you just feel you are comfortable,” said Gutman, who lives in West Roxbury, Mass.

Be proud, Rhode Island, because the quirky diner legacy began here 150 years ago, when a man named Walter Scott saw opportunity in the hungry workers on the overnight shifts. Scott hooked up a horse-drawn lunch wagon and fed the night owls, like the workers hustling to get the newspapers out in the morning.

“He went with his gut, and he was the first one to peddle food from a wagon and the success encouraged competition and industry,” Gutman said. “The idea was good enough, and it spread especially throughout New England, and it became a going concern.”

The manufactured lunch wagon gave way to prefabricated immobile restaurants that still carried the look of mobility. One manufacturer, Patrick J. Tierney, dubbed the longer wagons by the railroad term for cars, “diners,” a name that has stuck for the last century.

The 1920s brought in the first heyday, where diners became known as good places for travelers to find meals at affordable prices, and by the 1940s and 1950s, the manufacturers were making larger diners to meet the demand.

“The classic diners were built in factories that did nothing else but make diners, and because there was stiff competition, and the people were interesting craftsmen, they were able to turn out interesting buildings that were fun to be in and grabbed your eye,” Gutman said.

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Some looked like railroad cars or steel-encased buses, hugging the roadside, while others had wings and large welcoming windows. And, they could fit anywhere. “The great appeal of the diner is that you could put it on the front lawn and smack it up to the front porch, or slip it into a site,” Gutman said.

But diners struggled as they competed with fast-food chains. It took another generation in the 1980s to discover what diners had to say about Americana — and then the influence of social media to keep the renaissance going, Gutman said.

The successful ones often have a similar backstory — single proprietors that have sustained their families for multiple generations, Gutman said. They work there, they know their customers, and their businesses become integral to neighborhoods. They adapt with the times, offering farm-to-table menus, and cuisine that reflects the diversity in their communities.

“That’s part of the success story, and the fact that they appeal to multiple generations of people,” Gutman said.

Now though, there are perhaps 2,000 or fewer diners still operating, down from 10,000 in their heyday, Gutman said. The DeRaffele Manufacturing Co. Inc. in New Rochelle, New York, is one of the few original diner manufacturers still in business, he said. (Persy’s Place, the former Star Diner, in East Providence was made by DeRaffele.)

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So, maybe they’re not making diners like they used to. But the ones that remain keep the legacy alive.

When he was the curator at Johnson & Wales University’s culinary museum, Gutman used to frequent the Seaplane Diner just up the road.

Years after he left the university, Gutman stopped by the Seaplane for lunch and ordered his usual club sandwich with fries.

As the waitress placed his meal in front of him, she gave him a look. “You like your fries a little more done, don’t you?” she asked him.

Of course, she remembered him. It was a diner, after all.

Feeling hungry? Here are some great Rhode Island diners to try.


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.