Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The bloggers behind Diner Porn profiled the characters and cuisine of 24 greasy spoons from New Jersey to Georgia.
For Tom Smith, late-night diners have a magnetic allure: amber light washing over the darkened street, weary workers sidling up to the counter to refuel. He likes to feel surrounded by snippets of conversation and the sound of silverware scuffing china.
As a kid growing up in New Jersey—near the long-haul intersections of Route 46 and Route 80—he’d loved the nearby diners, like Park West in Little Falls. So when he felt adrift after moving to New York City, he headed to a place that felt familiar: a diner near West 4th Street in Manhattan. He’s enamored with the buzzing sound of neon signs, the slow and steady foot traffic, and the reflections bouncing off of steel and chrome.
“If I’d had a relative nearby, I would have gone there instead, but this was the next closest thing,” he says. “My family’s way of comforting people is to serve them food.”
Now Smith, a photographer, runs the blog Diner Porn with his wife, Alecia Eberhardt. The couple is publishing a crowdfunded book profiling 24 greasy spoons, which they visited on a three-week road trip that wound from New York down to Georgia, across to New Orleans, and up through Chicago and St. Louis.
Yes, there are devilishly mouthwatering photographs of buttery pancakes, frothy milkshakes, and regional staples, like the gut-busting “slingers” so common in Midwestern diners: a pile of hash browns topped with a heap of hamburger, chili, cheese, onions, and jalapeños. “But it’s not about the food,” says Smith.
To be clear, the duo loves to eat. “I’m from the Italian part of New Jersey,” says Smith. “We take our food more seriously than we take our lives.” (Eberhardt interjects: “He’s the person at the diner who orders the three-course special that usually only, like, 75-year-old men order. Fish, a vegetable, and a starch. That’s Tom.”) When it comes to their project, though, Eberhardt and Smith are more interested in chronicling the sense of community that these spaces can foster.
When they were dating, Smith and Eberhardt—who now live in Kingston, New York—were fixtures at a diner on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn. They’d sit at a vinyl booth for hours, nursing a mug of coffee and a French cruller with hardened glaze. “You wouldn’t be the only person doing that, either,” Alecia points out. “Especially people who work overnight or early in the morning.” Greasy spoons smudge class distinctions; they’re a place where shift workers and students cross paths over unlimited refills. The couple wrote on their Kickstarter page: “Diners are a crossroads, a space of genuine human connection, fueled by coffee and all-day breakfast.”
Diners, of course, are woven into the fabric of American culture. While lunch carts or pre-fabricated diners once satiated America’s working men, the diner industry expanded after World War II to offer a wholesome little luxury for upwardly mobile families. Andrew Hurley, a history professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis, describes this shift in his book, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in Postwar Consumer Culture: “The post-war diner promised to transform America’s poor, tired, and hungry into its affluent, relaxed, and stuffed.”
Smith thinks part of that sense of satiety comes from finding a sense of community and calm. “We’re really gung-ho on the ‘feel good’ aspect of comfort food,” he says. “A lot of people who work at diners have told us that they’re like bartenders of food,” adds Eberhardt. “They’re making conversation with people at the counter. The only difference is what they’re drinking.” That is to say, there’s a deep comfort in being a regular—in having someone who knows how you like your eggs and might have a few minutes to chat with you while you eat them.
Sometimes that sense of belonging can span your entire life. Finch’s Restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina—which, says Eberhardt, “looks like your great aunt Mary’s living room”—is lined with photos of pee-wee teams the diner has sponsored over the years. One faded photo depicts a group of t-ball players in the 1960s. Fifty years later, those players still come in to the diner as a group to chat over breakfast.