Long counters with vinyl-covered stools, funky jukeboxes, fresh coffee, and hearty fare served on heavy dishes are the images that come to mind when thinking about diners.
Though diners are most often associated with the roadside culture of the 1950s, when chromed eateries dotted the country, the area north of Boston remains home to a host of them, many from a much earlier era.
The go-to guy for local diner history is Larry Cultrera, a Medford native now living in Saugus. A frequent speaker on the subject, he maintains the blog Diner Hotline and wrote "Classic Diners of Massachusetts" in 2011.
Cultrera said his diner experience began at age 12, when he began helping out at the family business, Medford's Blue Eagle Meat Market. Early-morning trips with his dad to wholesalers in Boston often included breakfast at the Starlite Diner on Mystic Avenue.
By the early '80s, Cultrera's love of photography combined with his passion for history and collecting, and he began taking road trips to seek out and catalog local diners.
Cultrera, who often can be found digging into a plate of eggs and sausage at the Salem Diner and chatting with owners George and Zoe Elefteriadis, explained that while central Massachusetts has the most diners in the state because it was home to diner manufacturer Worcester Lunch Car Co., the northeast part of the state also has an unusually high concentration of diners due to the number of mill cities and working ports.
Late 19th-century lunch wagons were drawn to the booming business of feeding factory workers and stevedores. Eventually, diner buildings replaced the lunch wagons.
"Diners were the original fast food," said Cultrera. "People realized there was a need to service folks who worked early or late shifts when traditional restaurants were closed."
Over the years, many were moved or torn down to make way for new businesses (a Burger King now stands on the Starlite site), but many north of Boston have survived intact.
"Many of the diners that have survived, like the Capitol and the Agawam, have been run by the same family since day one." said Cultrera.
When Bostonians think of diners, they often think of Somerville, which is home to Buddy's Diner on Washington Street, Kelly's Diner in Ball Square, and the Rosebud in Davis Square.
The Rosebud, one of the few remaining Worcester Lunch Car semi-streamliners, is a particular favorite of diner fans. The recent purchase of the property by Martin Bloom has aficionados worried that the planned overhaul will ruin the vintage charm.
Early last month, Cultrera and diner enthusiasts from as far away as New Hampshire and New York made a pilgrimage to the Rosebud for a final breakfast together before it closed for renovations. Wary of what may come next, they shared memories and snapped farewell photos.
A little farther from Boston, the Capitol Diner in Lynn is believed to be the last operating diner produced by J.G. Brill Co. of Philadelphia. It has been serving up meals on Union Street since it was delivered to the site in 1928.
Another example from that era, the Little Depot Diner, started out in Lynn and after a stint in Danvers, settled into its current location on Railroad Avenue in Peabody in 1950.
This 13-seat Worcester Lunch Car, built in 1929, is as cute as they get. Its unique appeal includes a model train that blows its whistle while making its way around the cheery yellow and blue space.
Ross and Alicia Scanlon bought the diner just last November. Ross whips up daily specials in the kitchen while Alicia charms customers at the counter. "She gets satisfaction from making people have a better day," said Ross, who had been a caterer with several hot dog carts.
"I love to cook, serve people, and entertain,'' he said. "When I was a kid, I loved to check out diners — I liked the idea that they were small, family-owned businesses."
Fortunately, Little Depot still offers the maple-caramel-cinnamon concoction known as "special butter" (created by previous owners Jim and Judy Miles). It was served with a massive plate of French toast and a side of delicious grilled linguiça. The slightly spicy sausage also made the whistle stop breakfast sandwich worth savoring, accompanied by crunchy and perfectly seasoned home fries.
Lowell, the most famous mill city in Massachusetts, also has one of the highest concentrations of diners. The Club Diner on Dutton Street is a favorite of the college crowd looking for after-hours eats, while Arthur's Paradise Diner on Bridge Street is famed for its Boott Mills sandwich, a cardiologist's nightmare that packs an entire breakfast — up to three meats, eggs, cheese, and even home fries — into a buttered and grilled bulkie roll.
Another Lowell institution is the Four Sisters Owl on Appleton Street. This 1940 Worcester Lunch car, which has been there since 1951, has been owned and operated by the Shanahan family since 1982.
The funky vintage interior features wonderfully bright colors, and the food is well above average. The pancakes are fluffy, and the corned-beef hash hearty and tasty. But the star of the menu features slabs of house-baked Virginia ham carved off the bone, complemented by a tangy hollandaise in a fabulous eggs Benedict.
According to Martha Shanahan, the restaurant is a gathering place for politicos, and during last year's US senatorial race, both Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren made stops there. When Governor Deval Patrick kicked off his 2010 reelection campaign, he chose the Owl to do it.
Shanahan herself made news that day when she, a veteran waitress who said she had never dropped a dish, stumbled and dumped a full tray at the governor's feet. He took it in stride and helped her pick up the mess.
The Owl has seen its share of Hollywood as well. When "The Fighter" filmed in Lowell in 2009, many cast and crew members visited. Mickey O'Keefe, the Lowell cop who played himself in the film, is a regular (his wife, Donna, is a longtime employee), and Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, the subjects of the film, frequently enjoy breakfast there.
Although the old factories are partly responsible for the plethora of diners, not all of the classics are in urban areas. Pat's Diner on Bridge Road in Salisbury (Worcester Lunch Car #824, from 1950) is a customary stop for summer beachgoers. The exterior sports nontraditional siding, but the interior is vintage enough to be chosen as a stand-in for a South Boston greasy spoon in a recent Whitey Bulger documentary filmed by the Discovery Channel.
Another popular spot is the Agawam Diner on Route 1 in Rowley. Cultrera said it's one of the first diners he remembers visiting during road trips in the '70s, and is the last of four diners owned by the Galanis family to carry the Agawam name.
From the gleaming stainless steel exterior to the Formica counter and red vinyl booths, this 1954 structure offers the quintessential '50s diner experience. It was built by the Fodero Dining Car Co. of Bloomfield, N.J., which had become famous for its slick all-stainless steel panels and details like the winged clock.
The Agawam serves up a full menu of hearty breakfast and lunch entrées, but to locals, the place is synonymous with pie. On any given day, there are more than a dozen treats to choose from, each made daily in-house.
Of special note is the bizarre, yet delicious, angel pie: vanilla custard inside chocolate cake baked in a pie crust topped with a truckload of whipped cream. Paired with a cup of coffee, it's worth stopping for any time of day.