What It Was Like Going To The Diner In The 1960s

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There are so many restaurant choices today that it takes a lot of work to keep them all straight. Sometimes I feel like I need an instruction manual just to figure out what the newest place in town is serving. How are you supposed to know what’s good anymore?

It makes me long for the good old diners in the 1960s, where you could grab a simple bite to eat and hang out with your friends. Diners were such an essential backdrop in my life when I was growing up. Let’s look back at what made diners so special during that time.

Diners in the 1960s

Plain & Fancy Diner in Allentown, PA
Wikimedia Commons

In the 1960s, these old-school restaurants weren’t old-school at all. They were just hitting their stride; some had been around since the 1920s. The 1950s had been a good decade for them as well.

For me, this meant that the diner in my local neighborhood was already well-established. It was a smaller place, mom-and-pop owned and operated. They knew my parents; they knew me growing up. The diner wasn’t just a place; it was part of our community.

The 1960s Diner Experience

City Vu Diner Menu in Allentown, PA
Wikimedia Commons

Remember when you could walk in and smell the coffee brewing and food cooking on the grill in the back? I do. I have such a clear memory of red leather on the stools that lined the counter, a place for you to sit down and order a simple meal. The chrome on the counters and backs of the booths was always perfectly shined. And you could hear music piping over the speakers, usually played from a jukebox.

When you sat down in your local diner when I was a kid, you were going there for an inexpensive but still delicious meal. They were cheap compared to other places, so they were really popular with young people and families.

When we left school, my friends and I rode bikes to the diner to get a milkshake. As we got older, the reasons for our trips changed. If you were a teen, the diner was a great place to go on a first date and buy some burgers and fries with a soda pop from the fountain. It was also the place where everyone met to hang out and socialize.

I still remember my first time there with my high school sweetheart; we spent hours in a corner booth talking and listening to music as we tried to make our meals last. Dessert? Slices of chocolate cake picked out from underneath the glass display case.

Diners Today

Diners today are different from diners in the 1960s. Sure, they share a few of the same essential aesthetics that we’re familiar with, but they don’t call back to old-fashioned restaurants in the way you might hope.

Gone are the days when you felt like you were part of a family when you walked in the door. Most of the other patrons are too busy with their faces in their phones to make real conversation. It’s a shame, really.

But some diners today are doing something right and using that to recapture that old-fashioned restaurant feel. Some are doing their best to capture the style of the old diners in the 1960s by finding the perfect furniture and music to play or mimicking popular menu items.

Still, some others are doing so well at capturing that feeling because they never lost them, to begin with. Summit Diner in New Jersey is one of the oldest diners in the state, having opened its doors in the 1920s. It faithfully served its community members this entire time, never losing its heart and remaining family-owned to this day.

Other similar restaurants exist, hearkening back to the good old days and giving you a taste of the past you might have missed. Town Topic Hamburgers has been in business since 1937 and is a staple of American history. You can still go there today for mouthwatering burgers and drinks.

Exciting Facts About 1960s Diners

Empty leather sofa in an old diner in America
Photo by Lorenzo Nafissi on Unsplash

If the personal nostalgia wasn’t enough, diners are deeply embedded in American culture. They’re so much a part of our history that we can’t stop ourselves from putting them into TV shows and movies, from writing them into the pages of our books.

Their population may have dwindled over the decades, but we’re far from ever seeing them disappear entirely. Look at this round-up of exciting diner facts if you’re uncertain.

  • Walter Scott began the legacy of diners in Rhode Island in 1858.
  • Lunch wagons spread across Massachusetts in the 1880s.
  • Between 1910 and 1913, the first stationary diner was built by Jerry O’Mahoney.
  • In the 1920s, the term diner began to be broadly used for the first time.
  • Diners hosted gatherings for striking workers, civil rights protestors, and visiting politicians through the 1940s to 1960s

Americans indeed considered diners a staple of our lives during the 1960s; we went there for food, good company, and to hear news on the radio in the presence of our neighbors.

Before You Go

It sometimes feels like our good old days, enjoying diners in the 1960s, are far away. In a sense, they are. But they remain golden memories, like photographs in a worn and faded album. We can take them out and look them over whenever we want.

But there are other things we can do to keep those memories alive. One of my favorite weekend activities is to take my grandkids to the local diner. It may not be exactly the same as when I was a kid, but they get a kick out of listening to my stories.

And it’s not just about retelling the glory days of my youth. It’s an opportunity for me to reconnect with my family and hear their stories too. Their joys, triumphs, and heartache. All over a good meal and, yes, maybe some milkshakes too.

So if you’re feeling nostalgic, grab a family member or friend. Go to town, grab a greasy bite to eat, and connect again!

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