The precursors of today’s diners were horse-drawn lunch wagons that parked on corners and in vacant lots around Wall Street and other downtown neighborhoods in the 19th century. Sometimes these lunch carts were replaced with actual recycled railroad dining cars. By early in the next century, pre-fab structures designed to look like railroad dining cars were being installed all over the city. Starting in the 1920s, New Jersey counted as many as 20 dining car manufacturers including Fodero Dining Car Company of Bloomfield (responsible for our own Empire Diner), Silk City Diners of Paterson, Jerry O’Mahony of Elizabeth, and Kullman Industries of Avenel (builder of our own Square Diner and many others).
By the 1930s, these dining car manufacturers were in hot competition, building diners bigger and glitzier, and many diners from the 1940s and later have chrome or even stainless steel structures or at least exterior details. This tendency lasted well into the ’50s and ’60s as diners became even more streamlined, now influenced by Detroit automobiles.
But with size, diners ceased to be truly portable, and though they continued to be made to look like railroad dining cars, they were forever to remain sedentary. One of the last to be moved, the now-defunct Truck Stop Diner, was manufactured by Kullman. It originated in Manhattan at 50th Street and 8th Avenue but was moved in 1948 to Kearny, New Jersey. Soon, diners were being newly built of brick and mortar, or moving into pre-existing real estate.
Gradually, the old diners of NYC have disappeared, so that only a few remain. Typical of their fate is the Terminal Diner in Tribeca on the West Side Highway. Also manufactured by Kullman, it opened in the 1950s, only to close in 2006. It had adopted a succession of names, the last of which was the Lost Diner. Lost, indeed! For a number of years it sat forlornly by the roadway squished between autobody shops and gradually disintegrating.
But miraculously we have a few of the old diners left, and here are five that are definitely worth saving, in order of chronological first appearance. Note that all dates are approximate because sources differ.
The city’s oldest diner, Square was originally founded in 1922, replaced in 1946 by a dining car manufactured by Kullman Industries that remains intact today, despite a wooden roof rather hilariously added years later. But the classic diner interior is perfectly preserved with a line of red-upholstered stools along a lunch counter, a series of booths opposite, and a curved ceiling. The reason for its longevity is a mystery, but maybe because of its obscure location and lot size like a very thin sliver of pie, making a condo less likely. 33 Leonard Street, at Finn Square, Tribeca
Records show that a diner existed at this lot in Chelsea as early as 1929, to be replaced by the present gleaming, streamlined structure — certainly the city’s most famous diner — built by the Fodero Dining Car Company in 1943. One of the reasons it looks so great and commands so much attention now is that it was renovated by Carl Laanes, who was a designer at MOMA, in 1976. And in the ’70s and ’80s, it was a prominent gathering place for members of NYC’s gay community. After a succession of failed chefs in the aughts and teens, it has now settled into an upscale diner groove, with expensive but recognizable offerings. 210 10th Avenue, at 22nd Street, Chelsea
Three Decker Diner
In business since 1940 at the same quintessential Greenpoint corner, Three Decker Diner was named for its signature triple-decker sandwiches, which are currently being offered in eight varieties. The building, with brown bricks and tiles on its facade, is located directly above the Nassau stop on the G train, and offers a short lunch counter, individual seating along the windows, and booths. The menu was recently revamped with Tex-Mex food and good coffee. 695 Manhattan Avenue, at Norman Avenue, Greenpoint
Jackson Hole Diner
The streamlined, prefab metal building — built by Mountain View — landed just west of the airport 13 years after LaGuardia opened in 1939, and it still glints in the sunlight in a way that can be seen by planes taking off. It replaced a restaurant called Air Line Diner, but in 1972 it was renamed Jackson Hole — one of the first locations of a new diner chain inscrutably named for a ski resort in Wyoming (allegedly a reference to the National Geographic article on the town found under the floorboards during renovation). The delightful prop-plane logo and other inspired details remain. 69-35 Astoria Boulevard, at 70th Street, Jackson Heights
Bel Aire Diner
This streamlined diner the size of an ocean liner was founded in 1965 and extends around the corner of Broadway and 21st Street in Astoria. It is named after a Chevrolet model popular throughout the ’50s and ’60s, and pictures of convertibles are painted on the outside. It claims to have been open 24-hours every day since it was founded, and during the pandemic distinguished itself by showing drive-in movies in the parking lot. 31-91 21st Street, at Broadway, Astoria