The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the U.S.’s restaurant industry, including on the uniquely American institution of diners. Like many eating establishments, diners were brought to a breaking point during the long stretches throughout the year of operating under government-mandated restrictions.
Though indoor dining has been slowly resuming across the country, there are still far fewer Americans who choose to sit in a restaurant. There was a 44% decline of seated diners in March 2021 compared to March last year before restaurants, including diners, were ordered to close.
Diner historian Richard Gutman once defined the diner as a “friendly place, usually mom-and-pop with a sole proprietor, that serves basic, home-cooked, fresh food, for good value.” Establishments that fit that definition still exist in every state today, and 24/7 Tempo has assembled a list of the best.
Historians trace the origins of diner-type restaurants back to the horse-drawn lunch wagons that began appearing on the East Coast in the 1870s. These evolved into restaurants on wheels, complete with counters and bathrooms, and by the 1910s into permanent structures.
Soon entrepreneurs were manufacturing prefab structures, characterized by stainless steel siding and brightly colored booths, that could be shipped around the country and set up almost anywhere. At their peak in the 1950s, there were about 6,000 diners across America. Today, there are around 2,000, some 600 of them in New Jersey, the nation’s undisputed diner capital.
Almost all of the places on this list serve breakfast, often considered the quintessential diner meal, and some serve it all day — with ample choices of pancakes, waffles, omelettes and
other egg dishes, and of course breakfast sandwiches. (Here’s 24/7 Tempo’s list of iconic sandwiches you can make at home.)
While some menus are more creative and/or health-conscious and some reflect local culinary traditions, almost all of these places serve such diner standards as pancakes, omelettes, burgers, meatloaf, and fried seafood, as well as pies and milkshakes. (You may want to know of at least 27 milkshakes with more calories than entire meal.)
In order to determine the best diner in every state, 24/7 Tempo reviewed numerous existing best diners lists from a variety of sites. Most of the diners on this list were ranked as the best in their respective states multiple times. Chain units and establishments — whose size, menus, and/or style took what started as a diner out of the diner category — were passed over in favor of other, more traditional diners.