fb-pixel Skip to main content

Nothing beats a real diner — and R.I. has them

Jigger’s Diner on Main Street in East Greenwich.

For many, the diner represents pure Americana. Few things carry a nostalgic punch like piling into a corner booth for eggs the way you want them, a patty melt for lunch, or a thick shake. With their gleaming countertops, fast service, retro music, generous portions, and affordability, diners are ingrained in our weekend routines. However, few diners meeting that archetypal image remain.

“Nowadays, there are lots of counter restaurants that call themselves diners,” says Richard J. S. Gutman, former director of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University and the author of four books on diners. “Most of those are not actual diners. Diners are prefabricated buildings, which you could pick up and move to a new location. They serve diverse fare with a reasonable price and a fun atmosphere.”

Advertisement



“Now that the spotlight is on diners, every restaurant wants to be a diner,” Gutman adds.

Rhode Island is the exception to that trend. The Ocean State is dotted with historical prefabricated diners that serve top notch food. While other parts of the country have shifted toward strip mall chains to satisfy their breakfast and lunch needs, Rhode Island remains a stronghold for retro food done right, and some diners are even innovating and making cuisine relevant to the 21st century foodie.

According to Gutman, diners in Rhode Island date back more than 100 years. Since the first diner was established by Walter Scott in 1872 to sell food out of a horse drawn wagon to night shift employees in Providence, the industry grew, eventually shifting to permanent rail car-like structures. Wood gave way to chrome and stainless steel. The counter (which in some cases is the only seating a diner offers) has been a constant, with a marble or Formica top. When determining a diner’s authenticity, it’s important to look for tile floors or walls, and some food preparation should be done behind the counter.

Advertisement



While a diner’s aesthetics have remained relatively unchanged for the last 75 years. The same can’t be said for the food. “There were things like asparagus tips on toast that might’ve gone out of fashion but are primed for a revival,” Gutman says. “Lamb’s tongues aren’t the most popular thing on any diner’s menu nowadays.” Gutman stressed that some of today’s staples, like eggs cooked to the customer’s specifications and lunch sandwiches, have remained since the early days.

Modern Diner (364 East Ave., Pawtucket, 401-726-8390, www.moderndinerri.com ) has been delivering that fare since 1941. The local institution is so well known that it became the first diner listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. According to owner Nick Demou, the 85 seat diner had fallen on hard times when he acquired it in 1986. “There were homeless people living in the basement, it was a mess when we took it over,” Demou says. “It took a year to build up the kitchen and the building next to (the diner).”

Nowadays, Modern serves college students and Pawtucket residents. Customers can indulge in fluffy oversized pancakes, decadent lobster eggs benedict, and custard French toast, all of which leave the kitchen at lightning speed. Demou loves to innovate and maintains a board with 25-30 unique specials.

Jigger’s Diner (145 Main St., East Greenwich, 401-884-6060, www.jiggersdiner.com ) seats 32, which seems miraculous given the tiny impression it leaves on the street. There has been a diner in the same location since 1917, with the current car originating in 1950. Like many diners, nostalgia is a main factor driving business. Owner Karie Myers plays ’50s music over the speakers and tries to keep things as authentic as possible in the dining room. “It’s so important to have an atmosphere of an old diner even though it’s 2017,” Myers says. “When you walk in, it brings you back a little bit.” Jigger’s does the classics well, like a Reuben piled high with corned beef, fresh baked muffins, corned beef hash, or perfectly cooked eggs. Myers, however, likes to get creative with her food and offers BBQ pork eggs benedict on cornbread, or a Reuben eggs benedict around St. Patrick’s Day. Be warned that Jigger’s is often packed, and there’s no room to wait inside, so bundle up on a cold day!

Advertisement




Jon Mael can be reached at jmael2014@gmail.com.