Wednesday, July 11, 2007

how we define diners.

As a scientist by trade, I like to categorize and define things. Darius and I have our own system of diner classification that we use when we visit places. Since this blog is entirely our own opinions, its only fair that we lay out these characteristics. So here are the definitions of what we consider a true diner, dinette, or diner restaurant. All 3 have some overall characteristics, the differences are mostly in the physical structure of the building. There are, or course, exceptions to each category and occasions where a place may fit into more than one. I guess its more of a 'diner spectrum' than distinct 'diner categories'.

Building independent characteristics. These things are found at just about any diner or diner-style place.

makes delicious food:
I don't care whether the menu is traditional diner fare or modern / gourmet food. Cheap or pricey, it must be tasty. Many people excuse bad food because a place is "a greasy spoon". blech! A 10-seater, hole-in-the-wall should still make food that tastes good.

serves breakfast:
Here the difference in Jersey diners and New England diners is huge. Both styles serve at least breakfast and lunch, even though bigger diners have a full dinner menu as well. [I will concede that Casey's Diner in Natick, MA is definitely a diner even though it serves only hot dogs and burgers.]

experienced staff:
Some might think this a strange defining characteristic, but I am quite particular about it. I have waited tables at MANY restaurants in my life (including Denny's). One thing that separates the Boulevard Diner from the newest 'Cheesecake Cafe' (chain franchise) is the experience of the staff. If you are a regular at a local diner, you will see the same servers and cooks every weekend and they know what they are doing. They are not hired today and fired tomorrow, which is the status quo at most chain restaurants.

Building specific characteristics:
(true) Diner:
For me, the sole defining factor is that it was factory built (aka prefabricated, free-standing). They can be small like Worcester Lunch Car Co, or larger ones such as DeRafelle or Kullman. They were transported to their new location and final assembly was done on site (depending on the size of the diner). [There are a few small diners that were unique and built-on-site. I think they still count as True Diners.]

1) not free-standing (or prefabricated), even though it has all the other characteristics of a diner. They can be in a strip-mall or the bottom of a larger building. Tom's Restaurant in New York is a very well known example. Another common type of dinette was the cafe in Woolworth's or other 5-and-dime stores, but they are pretty much extinct now. A great dinette in Worcester is Zia Grill, often overlooked because it is actually inside an italian bakery.
2) has counter seating available. Single diners can sit and and get quick service. A little restaurant without a counter is just a cafe to me.
3) small. Of course, this is a fuzzy definition. A large dinette might be more of a diner restaurant.

Diner Restaurant:
A very large diner with lots of table seating and extensive menu options. Often open 24 hours. In our universe, Jersey-style diners are leaning towards the 'diner restaurant' end of this spectrum (despite being factory built).
A "family restaurant" that focuses on breakfast and lunch, even though they are not in a factory built diner. Might have tables only without counter seating. One of our favorite breakfast places near our house is Joseph's Two. It is definitely not a diner based on the building but still satisfies all the other characteristics that make a diner restaurant. (see below)

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