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Diners: American Classics

What could be finer than a community diner?



 



The initial heyday of the diner has passed us by – the iconic railcar-inspired buildings created and sold by the New Jersey-based Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company that came to define the diner in the U.S. ended production right before the country entered WWII. By the late 1960s, the number of active diners in the U.S. fell to just more than 5,000, a result of tremendous growth in fast food and drive-in restaurants. The number is small, given that we have more than 600,000 restaurants in the country now, but the diner remains inextricably woven into the textures of American pop culture, food and restaurant design.
 

What would Pulp Fiction be without the amazing opening scene in which Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer discuss the merits of robbing liquor stores, banks and restaurants while seated in a diner booth? Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is a painting we genuinely consider a snapshot of Americana, to say nothing of Norman Rockwell’s famous illustrations. On the more serious side, black and white photos of African Americans holding sit-ins at local diners are indelible images of the Civil Rights movement, including Clara Luper’s now famous sit-in at OKC’s Katz Drug Store lunch counter in 1958.

The diner has never been just about the food: It was a symbol of community, a place to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee before Starbucks and its ilk remade the caffeine landscape, a place to discuss news and local events, to meet the neighbors, to argue politics and religion, to study and, yes, to eat. Diners were typically 24-hour businesses, so breakfast, lunch and dinner were all on the menu, and it seems clear that they made the job of short order cook into an American institution, as well. Any good chef will tell you that a man or woman who can properly cook two dozen eggs to order at one time possesses a rare and wonderful skillset.

The 1960s brought cataclysmic change to America’s institutions, and diners were no exception – but while individual diners closed, the concepts lived on in spite of cultural shifts, both in the local establishments that refused to die and in fast food restaurant design. The menus behind the register at fast food restaurants? Diner inspired. The stools kids spin on at McDonald’s? Diner inspired. Seating choices that included stools, counters, tables and booths? Diners.

 

As for the countertops, they are the surest sign that you have entered a diner. There is no set, official definition of diner, no legal parameters such that a restaurateur may not use the term unless certain design specifications are met, but the diners that reshaped our cultural and culinary paradigms had counters where people could sit and eat. Absent a counter, you have a café. And there’s nothing wrong with cafés, but they are not diners.

When Shannon Roper and Aly Branstetter decided to open Sunnyside Diner in 2016, they insisted on a counter. Roper is matter-of-fact about it: “To me, a diner has a counter. You sit down. You order your coffee.”

(top right) Aly Branstetter of Sunnyside Diner, a new space that already has a classic diner feel.

 

Roper and Branstetter are only two restaurateurs who have reached back into the past to bring diners into the present. Roper said that he and his wife, Camille, look for diners when they travel – they love Gailey’s Breakfast Café in Springfield, Missouri.

“I love diner food,” Roper says. “I grew up in a small town, El Reno, so I grew up eating in diners. We got onion burgers at Johnnie’s Grill, which I think is the original onion burger joint.”

Sunnyside is one of the new diners to the area, and while Hatch and eventually Aurora will contribute to the breakfast and brunch scene, Sunnyside is a true diner. As such, Roper said they are moving toward the 24-hour model. They will add a dinner menu this year, and in keeping with the traditional theme, Chef Kiki Sabourin will serve up roast beef, hot turkey sandwiches, meatloaf and all the other dishes diners are supposed to serve. And there will be pie. Diners used to have pie cases on, or at least behind, the counter. Sabourin is already offering peanut pie, and Roper said they are trying to find a case now so that they can increase their pie offerings.

 

If they are successful, walking into Sunnyside will feel like walking into a classic diner circa 1975. That’s not surprising, given that Roper’s other endeavors – S&B Burgers, for example – feature food from the 1970s and ’80s. These were the formative years for him, and that’s when we also form our definitions of comfort food.

Comfort might be some part of the explanation for why diners are trending nationwide. “We have lots of fancy restaurants with really unique food,” Roper says, “but maybe as millennials are aging into families and homes, they are looking for something different.”

Surely there is an element of nostalgia for some of us, some voice from our childhood or youth calling us back to gravy and hash browns and open-faced sandwiches, and away from truffles and exotic birds stuffed with hard-to-pronounce ingredients, to a time when cheese was cheese, and not an unending lexicon of words from other distant places.

This is not to say that those finer places do not possess merit; they clearly do. But when life becomes more complicated, simple choices are very helpful in uncluttering our existences: toast or biscuit, hash browns or breakfast potatoes, scrambled or fried, white or wheat? Perhaps more importantly, counter or booth? Someone should do a study of the psychology of that choice, because it may be a better way to understand humanity than any yet found. Nostalgia, though, is a tricky thing. We can romanticize what came before, and in a very real sense, our memories are full of details our brain created to fill out the storyline. All hash browns are not crispy out and tender in (as God intended them to be); some need to be pressed between napkins to eliminate the extra grease. Diners are irregular things because cooks are humans, and some owners care more than others. Overall, the diner has endured not because of the food, but for other, more intuitive reasons.


As part of this feature, we asked food professionals and people from various walks of life what their favorite diner is … or in some cases, what it used to be, as many are now closed. Tunnel vision affects us all, and it was clear with one answer from three different people that this writer failed to notice the oldest diner in Oklahoma because it was not a diner per se.

“My favorite diner?” Chef Kurt Fleischfresser echoes. “The north side of Cattlemen’s.”

Cattlemen’s Steakhouse has been in continuous operation for more than 100 years, and the north side, the original part of the restaurant, is a diner.

Shaun Fiaccone, who owns Picasso Café, says Cattlemen’s “knows who they are after 100 years.”

“They are comfortable in their own skin, and it’s so refreshing. You feel it as soon as you walk in.”

Cattlemen’s operated 24 hours a day up until 1988 or 1989. During the 1960s and ’70s, the restaurant served hundreds of the 30 to 40 thousand workers who populated the large packing houses west of Cattlemen’s: Armour, Swift, Wilson and others. They started closing in the 1970s, and Cattlemen’s suffered a downturn. When operating partner David Egan and his business partner Dick Stubbs bought the place, they continued to staff the diner side, and now, the counter is manned seven days a week beginning at 6 a.m.

Egan said they let diners choose which side to sit on now. Up until 1990, the breakfast side closed for dinner, but eventually, demand made it necessary to re-open the counter for dinner, and many guests now choose the more casual side.

 

Some of the appeal is the counter. While it’s possible to chat between booths, a counter is like a bar in that many people who sit at one don’t mind conversational stimulation from strangers who are neighbors at the bar.

Brady Sexton, who owns Scratch in Norman, said he loves diners because he can sit at the counter with his kids. “You can’t do that at a bar, but at the diner, it’s part of the fun. It’s also more fun and personal to sit closer to the staff.”

Regulars will tell you – and they are correct – that the best service in a restaurant is typically at the bar. This is simple spatial reasoning: A server or bartender is nearly always within sight or hearing, as opposed to a table or booth, where seeing your server every three to five minutes is standard. Counters in diners are much like bars in this respect, making them even more appealing to the non-introverts among us.


Before there was Starbucks, there was the counter, and so we come to the coffee. Does the coffee need to be good at a diner? Maybe. Visiting several diners over a few weeks convinced me that coffee is the most irregular feature of diners. The servers, the eggs, the mixed fruit jelly (only available in restaurants, folks), the kitschy décor, the glass sugar dispensers that eject pre-diabetic granules at a furious volume, the squeeze bottles of ketchup that always seemed to be topped with vinegar simply to frustrate you, the nondescript flatware, the paper napkins that somehow shred skin and absorb liquid – these are all the same, or at least similar. The coffee quality is all over the place, though. Sunnyside has excellent coffee. Not all diners do, though many of the customers don’t seem to care.

They didn’t come for the coffee. I heard first names called on dozens of occasions. “The usual, Bill?” “You take it black, right, Hank?” “How are the grandkids, Esther?” In “Cheers”-like fashion, the diner is a local joint; the local-est in some ways, because we allow people to see us regularly early in the morning, when we are not at our best. They know our names, hear our stories and ask after our loved ones, and they keep the coffee “warmed up.” If it tastes a bit like caffeinated sadness, we can live with that. The side of camaraderie is usually plenty to send customers off with a smile, and to keep the legacy of these restaurant institutions rolling along into the future.

 


► The Ones We Miss
 

Larry Dean Pickering | Artist, Designer, Gadabout

“Skyline Restaurant near Eastern and SE 15th. I used to pick my dad up when he came in off the road, and we would eat there at 3 a.m. The Skyline Chili was something else – damn good, greasy spoon chili.”

 

Ty Tyler | Owner/Partner, Tyler Media

“Our family ate at Dolly’s every Sunday morning when I was growing up. I miss their breakfast.”

 

Robert Ross | Founder and Co-owner, Interurban and Packard’s New American Kitchen

“Denco’s was a great diner during the day, and a college hangout at night. They were inside the Denver Transportation Company building, which is where the name came from. They closed in 1981, but everyone from Norman remembers the Denco Darlin’: elbow macaroni with chili and cheese.”

 

Steve Gill | Managing Editor, 405 Magazine

“I still miss the burgers, fries and shakes from Nichols Hills Drug; they were good enough to warrant wading through the ever-present horde of Bishop McGuinness students.”

Denco’s courtesy oklahoma historical society;


 


► Fine Old Favorites
 

Scotty O’Daniel, art director, 405 Magazine

“Sherri’s Diner. The décor gives it a nice throwback feel, and the food’s good enough to make you think about becoming a regular. I’m already planning a return trip for biscuits and gravy. And pie.”

 

Kurt Fleischfresser, executive chef and partner, Western Concepts

“Cattlemen’s serves real food. It’s not processed, anti-oxidized, homogenized stuff. And I love the atmosphere.”

 

Shaun Fiaccone, restaurateur, Picasso Café

“Cattlemen’s. It embodies all the attributes of the perfect diner: delicious, unpretentious food in an equally unpretentious environment, familiar, well worn, effortlessly executed. (Full disclosure: it doesn’t hurt that my first job was at Applewoods.)”

 

David Henry, executive chef and operating partner, The Hutch on Avondale

“Good Gravy serves perfect hangover food, and the chicken-fried steak is the size of your face!”

 

Brady Sexton, owner, Scratch

“The Diner. The food is exactly what you expect, and it’s fast and friendly.”

 

Melissa Aust, executive chef, Stella Modern Italian Cuisine

“Ray’s Café over off May. I feel really young when I’m there, and the food is great. Also, Beverly’s.”

 

Kristi Miller Griffith, wine sales representative

“Juan del Fuego in Norman. It’s a diner with a Mexican twist. It’s everything that is great about both things.”

 

(clockwise from top left) Juan del Fuego // Boom-a-Rang // Stray Dog Cafe // Jim's Diner



► Extra Helpings
 

This newer addition to Bethany is well worth a visit, with a soothing atmosphere and friendly staff – they’re how we learned that they bake their own cinnamon bread for the French Toast. We learned it’s completely delicious through independent research.

 

An Oklahoma success story that started in one OKC diner has swelled to 50+ locations. They serve a full menu seven days a week, and claim to go through 7.5 million eggs per year. Probably in part because the scrambles are so good.

 

It might be a lingering aspect of Route 66’s storied legacy, but Bethany has a bumper crop of long-lived diners. Jim’s is pushing 40, and they mean it when they say homestyle. We recommend the open-face roast beef sandwich, with homemade pie a la mode.

 

This might be the only place on the list where we wouldn’t be tempted to order breakfast. It’s probably quite good, but they’re a progenitor of a true culinary treasure: You can’t go to Sid’s and not get an onion burger with fries and a shake.

 

Far-flung across Oklahoma – there’s even one in western Arkansas – these retro-styled locales have a varied menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pro tip: The catfish is especially good.

 

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June 2017

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View map »


Telephone: 405.236.3100
Website »

More information

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View map »


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Contact Name: Becky Weintz
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More information

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More information

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Where:
Myriad Gardens
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View map »


Telephone: 405.235.3700
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More information

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More information

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View map »


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More information

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OKC, OK  73016
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Telephone: 405.524.0738
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A slice of American (and Oklahoman) history retakes the spotlight in this exhibition of works created under the New Deal's Federal Art Project.

Where:
OKC Museum of Art
415 Couch
OKC, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.236.3100
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Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic presents an overview of the artist’s career including around sixty of his oil paintings, stained glass and sculpture. The exhibition...

Cost: $10-12

Where:
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.236.3100
Contact Name: Becky Weintz
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A joint exhibition of Western portraiture and iconography from Oklahoma Hall of Fame artists Mike Larsen and Harold T. Holden.

Where:
OK Hall of Fame Museum
1400 N Classen
OKC, OK  73106
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Telephone: 405.235.4458
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The OKC Museum of Art screens overlooked treasures and unsung independent films.

Where:
OKC Museum of Art
415 Couch
OKC, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.236.3100
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It's not quite Hamilton, though it's written by Lin-Manuel Miranda - prepare to get fired up by this upbeat tale of cheerleading competition.

Where:
Pollard Theater
120 W Harrison
Guthrie, OK  73044
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Telephone: 405.282.2800
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Arise Ministries will host their 13th annual conference for single moms, Survive ‘N’ Thrive Unplugged, re-invented into a single-day format featuring 12 empowering speakers and designed...

Cost: $30

Where:
Crossings Community Church
14600 Portland Ave.
Oklahoma City , OK  73134
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Sponsor: Arise Ministries
Telephone: 405.812.5137
Contact Name: Shelley
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Expand your skills and explore your creativity this summer. Enrollment is open for our four- and eight-week classes designed for artists at any level. Under the guidance of experienced instructors,...

Cost: $75-$160

Where:
Oklahoma Contemporary
3000 General Pershing Blvd
Oklahoma City, OK  73107
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Sponsor: Oklahoma Contemporary
Telephone: 405.951.0000
Contact Name: Lori Brooks
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Departs Exchange Landing | Saturdays (May  – August) | 11:40 am Experience history as you never have before. Colorful Oklahoma characters will reenact history through the eyes of...

Cost: $6-15

Where:
Exchange Landing
1503 Exchange Avenue
SW, over the bridge from Farmer's Market
Oklahoma City, OK  73109
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Telephone: 405.702.7755
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Saturday cartoons aren’t just for the children anymore. Share the classics with your crew every Saturday on an Oklahoma River Cruise. Kids 6 and under ride free.

Cost: $15 (free for kids 6 and under)

Where:
Exchange Landing
1503 Exchange Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73109
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Telephone: 405.702.7755
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Dust off those chaps and spurs and saddle up! Enjoy country music, party mix and a cash bar on these weekend cruises. View the evening ferry schedule online for evening departure times, and pay...

Cost: $6-15

Where:
All OK River Cruise Landings
Oklahoma City, OK  73109


Telephone: 405.702.7755
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The Purple Loft Art Gallery is pleased to represent the new work of Abstract Expressionist artists MaryAnn Ceballos and Jerry Piper. These 2 accomplished artists enjoy reinventing themselves...

Cost: Free

Where:
Purple Loft Art Gallery
514 NW 28th
Oklahoma City, OK  73103
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Sponsor: The Purple Loft Art Gallery
Telephone: 405.412.7066
Contact Name: MaryAnn Ceballos

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A Tony-winning comedy wraps up the Carpenter Square season as siblings reunite for arguments, complaints and eventually, bonding.

Where:
Carpenter Square Theater
800 W Main
OKC, OK  73106
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Telephone: 405.232.6500
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A full day of kayaking, dragon boat racing and other watery events - and an evening, thanks to the OGE NightSprints - plus food trucks and fun make this tradition a summertime blast.

Where:
Oklahoma River
800 Riversport
OKC, OK  73129
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Telephone: 405.552.4040
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The casino is hopping this month, with extra energy from the actor and country singer.

Where:
Riverwind Casino
1544 W Hwy 9
Norman, OK  73072
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Telephone: 405.322.6464
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Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park kicks off a new season with the Bard's take on the battle of the sexes.

Where:
Myriad Gardens
301 W Reno
OKC, OK  73102
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Telephone: 405.235.3700
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Play ball! OKC's warriors of the diamond get set to host Nashville.

Where:
Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark
2 S Mickey Mantle
OKC, OK  73104
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Telephone: 405.218.1000
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A joint exhibition of Western portraiture and iconography from Oklahoma Hall of Fame artists Mike Larsen and Harold T. Holden.

Where:
OK Hall of Fame Museum
1400 N Classen
OKC, OK  73106
View map »


Telephone: 405.235.4458
Website »

More information

A slice of American (and Oklahoman) history retakes the spotlight in this exhibition of works created under the New Deal's Federal Art Project.

Where:
OKC Museum of Art
415 Couch
OKC, OK  73102
View map »


Telephone: 405.236.3100
Website »

More information

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic presents an overview of the artist’s career including around sixty of his oil paintings, stained glass and sculpture. The exhibition...

Cost: $10-12

Where:
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
View map »


Telephone: 405.236.3100
Contact Name: Becky Weintz
Website »

More information

A trip to the amusement park becomes even more tempting with a fun-filled set from the '90s superstars.

Where:
Frontier City
11501 N I-35 Service
OKC, OK  73131
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Telephone: 405.478.2140
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If a swift, entertaining musical tale of two kids falling in love is the one that you want, Upstage Theater has the word for you.

Where:
Mitch Park
1501 W Covell
Edmond, OK  73003
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Telephone: 405.285.5803
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OKC Comedy is dedicated to making the metro laugh, and they've outdone themselves this month, bringing local audiences the gifts of Tig Notaro Jun 10, Lady Parts Justice League Jun 13 and The...

Where:
ACM@UCO Performance Lab
329 E Sheridan
OKC, OK  73104
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Politically charged and unapologetically feminist, this shows harnesses the talents of dozens of local women creators, with proceeds benefiting OKC Artists for Justice.

Where:
Current Studio
1218 N Penn
OKC, OK  73107
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Telephone: 673.1218
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Edmond's citywide celebration of Independence Day spans more than a week of events, excitement, food and all kinds of fun.

Where:
Throughout Edmond
Edmond, OK


Telephone: 405.340.2527
Website »

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It's not quite Hamilton, though it's written by Lin-Manuel Miranda - prepare to get fired up by this upbeat tale of cheerleading competition.

Where:
Pollard Theater
120 W Harrison
Guthrie, OK  73044
View map »


Telephone: 405.282.2800
Website »

More information

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