Even though there are plenty of innovative new restaurants opening all the time, sometimes nothing quite hits the spot like food from an old-fashioned local diner. Known for their often lengthy menus, affordable dishes, and nostalgic atmosphere, old-school diners have been a fixture in America for years. Diners aren’t just a great place to meet family and friends for a quick bite to eat but are also arguably a symbol of American culture.
The diner concept is believed to have been born in the 1870s in Rhode Island but shortly after New Jersey became the leader of prefabricated diner production—the state currently has hundreds of diners.
While there seems to be no shortage of diners in the United States (you’re never too far away from one), some just really stand out. For instance, there’s one that opened over 125 years ago as a horse-drawn lunch wagon in Rhode Island. And, while many boast the traditional diner decor—chrome metal, checkerboard floors, and neon signs—others offer something unexpected like a gift shop on-premises or a “dinosaur” park out back. There’s even one with retro-themed cabins nearby if you’d like to stay for the night.
If you’re looking for a beloved spot to enjoy a meal with a side of nostalgia, then look no further. Here are 16 of the most iconic old-fashioned diners in America.
If you’re a fan of double-decker hamburgers, then you need to give Bob’s Big Burger in Los Angeles a visit. The famous burger joint, which has seen the likes of The Beatles walk through its doors, started in 1936 after a man named Bob Wian sold his car and bought a ten-stool lunch stand. Over 90 years later, the California mainstay has remained a community fixture, drawing in customers from all over the surrounding area. Its Burbank eatery, which was built in the 1940s and is the oldest remaining Bob’s Big Boy in the country, is currently open seven days a week (and late, too) and holds a weekly vintage car show each Friday.
For a truly unique dining experience, visit Ellen’s Stardust Diner right in the heart of New York City. This one-of-a-kind spot first opened in 1987 and is considered the city’s first 50s-themed diner. It’s also famously known for its singing waitstaff, dubbed The Stardusters. Each day, these performers sing from open to close, and some even eventually go on to perform on Broadway.
Everything on its menu looks delicious, but if you’re lucky enough to visit this iconic diner, try one of its specialty breakfast dishes, such as the Cinnamon Roll Pancakes or Holy Moly French toast.
No visit to L.A. is complete without stopping by The Original Pantry, located on South Figueroa Street. The renowned restaurant started as a small 15-stool space in 1924 and is now synonymous with weekend brunches and late-night dining. The Original Pantry, which former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan currently owns, has served big names like Marilyn Monroe and Martin Luther King Jr. It is also open 24 hours a day if you’re looking for a bite to eat in the middle of the night.
Atlanta’s famous downtown diner (and once-upon-a-time drive-in), The Varsity, has been whipping up chili dogs, cheeseburgers, tasty french fries, and chicken nuggets since it opened all the way back in 1928.
The establishment, which has been family-owned and operated since its inception, has had some very exciting moments throughout the years. Clark Gable enjoyed a meal at The Variety in 1939. In 1950, The Varsity dubbed itself the world’s biggest drive-in. And, in 1996, one of the business’ famous workers, Erby Walker, got to carry the torch during the Olympics.
Today, there are six Varsity locations throughout Atlanta, and they even have food trucks available for events if you need them.
A beloved diner and soda fountain since the 1940s, Brent’s Drugs is an old-school classic. Started by pharmacist Alvin Brent over 70 years ago, the popular eatery boasts vibrant blue booths, a checkerboard-esque floor, chrome stools, and a neon sign out front. Its menu is packed with diner food classics, like chicken salad, grilled cheese, and pancakes, and you can’t visit the place without ordering one of its famous ice cream floats.
If you’re looking for something a bit stronger, head over to the diner’s cocktail bar, The Apothecary, located right in the back. Named one of the best bars in the area by several local publications, this fun spot serves inventive drinks, like Tutto Pepe, which is a version of the classic Negroni but with a dash of black pepper.
Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner in San Bernardino County, Calif., is as retro as they come. The famous diner came about in the 1980s when Champ and Peggy Sue Gardner, a couple from Southern California, decided to move to the Mojave Desert and renovate an old roadside diner that dated back to the 1950s. The two spruced up the place and transformed it into a local favorite brimming with character and nostalgia—not to mention great food. The spot boasts Peggy Sue’s grandmother’s family recipes with creative names (like the Tina Turner Tuna Sandwich and the Mickey Mouse Club Sandwich) and is a favorite among everyone from tourists to truck drivers. It’s not all about the food here, though, as this diner truly has it all—a gift shop, pizza parlor, 50’s tunes, and even a “dinosaur” park out back.
Plan to have at least one meal at the 59er Diner if you ever find yourself in Leavenworth, Wash. A total blast from the past, this beloved diner serves fresh eggs from its very own chickens, uses seasonal produce sourced from its own farm and local farmers, and even has a working jukebox that you can play old-school tunes on.
However, one of the best parts of the 59er Diner is its cabins—the restaurant has nearly a dozen themed lodging options on-premise. For instance, you can stay in the Paradise Bungalow, which is outfitted with tropical decor, the ’70s Haus, which will surely transport you back in time, or the Big Bopper Bungalow, which has traditional sock hop decorations (think, vinyl records on the wall, checkerboard floors, and framed black and white portraits).
Mel’s Drive-In is known as an American classic, and for a good reason. Started in 1947, Mel’s Drive-In began as a carhop in San Francisco and, at one point, was estimated to be making up to 20,000 burgers a day during the 1950s. Although the original Mel’s was sold and then subsequently demolished in the 1970s, in the mid-80s, the famous spot made a comeback and now has locations in Santa Monica, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, and more. Its menu is filled with comfort food classics—such as chili fries, chicken tenders, and its famous Melburger—and vegetarian options, such as quinoa kale salad and a black bean burger. There’s a smoothie and juice bar, too.
In Chicago and don’t know where to eat? Two words: Lou Mitchell’s. The beloved diner, which got its start over a century ago, has been serving up excellent egg dishes, toasty sandwiches, and refreshing salads (the Hollywood salad bowl with Julienne turkey sounds pretty good) to politicians, celebrities, and more throughout the years. Ingredients like eggs and meat are sourced locally, and items like orange juice and homemade bread are made fresh.
The diner, established along Route 66, is so popular that it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and has even been recognized by the Michelin Guide for its “delicious omelets” and “iconic crowds.” It was the first place in Chicago to offer breakfast 24 hours a day, so you know it will be good.
Beaches, balmy weather, and 11th Street Diner—what more could you want? The buzzy establishment, which opened over 30 years ago, is housed in a restored classic dining car built in the 1940s by the famous Paramount Dining Car Company in Haledon, N.J. The dining car was first put into use in Wilkes Barre, Pa., where it served delicious diner food for over 40 years. Afterward, it was dismantled and restored, starting its second life as 11th Street Diner in Miami.
The famous joint, open seven days a week, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and has a menu packed with delicious options like hot wings, Cobb salad, and cheesesteaks. Its interior is also decked out in chrome accents, red leather booths, and a tile floor, so you can get the whole old-school diner experience when eating here. “Always, Always ALWAYS stop at 11th if you’re around!” one Yelp reviewer advised.
Route 66 truly has no shortage of iconic diners. If you’re in the Kingman, Ariz. area and looking for a bite to eat, head over to Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner, a talked-about spot where even people like Oprah have enjoyed a meal. It was originally a gas station in the 1940s but now is a diner that attracts people from far and wide.
Named one of the best restaurants to eat in Arizona by AZ Family Magazine, the renowned restaurant makes its root beer and pizza, has tons of Route 66 memorabilia, and serves up some of the best cheeseburgers, french fries, and sandwiches around. Its pink and blue exterior and eye-catching sign are also pretty cool.
Although Clinton Station Diner opened up only around 20 years ago, it is housed in an authentic Blue Comet train car from 1927. Known for its large portions and exceptional dessert case (with over 50 house-baked options), the renowned restaurant’s lengthy menu includes everything from nachos and hummus to chicken salad sandwiches and fried calamari. They even make their bread on the premises twice daily.
If you’re really hungry, you can try one of their famous burger challenges, in which you and a few friends are awarded cash if you’re all able to finish one of their larger-than-life burgers (their 105-pound 8th Wonder burger could be one of the biggest in the world).
Featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” the renowned Clanton’s Cafe in Vinita, Oklahoma, has fed the community for nearly 100 years. Known as the oldest family-owned restaurant along Oklahoma’s Route 66, the Clantons have a long history of being involved in the Oklahoma food scene—in 1927, farmer Grant Clanton started his dining spot, called The Busy Bee Cafe, where he would come outside and bang a pot with a spoon to let everyone in the town know lunch was ready to be served. In 1930, the first Clanton’s Cafe was opened, and, well, the rest is history. Although they have no shortage of delicious dishes on their menu, some of their standouts include stuffed baked potatoes, chicken fried sandwiches, cobbler pies, and Belgian waffles.
Is there any place cuter than Bob & Edith’s Diner in Virginia? The neighborhood fixture, which now has grown to include five locations, was started in 1969 when Bob Bolton and his wife Edith decided to buy Gary’s Donut Dinette. Currently owned by the Bolton’s son Greg and his wife Victoria, the spot once only had a ten-stool counter but has expanded multiple times since the 1980s.
Recognized for its delicious dishes, which include mouth-watering omelets, tasty milkshakes, and their iconic B&E burger made with egg and bacon, and welcoming atmosphere—the chrome accents and old-fashioned tiling are really the cherry on top—there’s no place like Bob & Edith’s.
Well-known Frank’s Diner, a registered historic landmark, is the oldest continuing lunch car diner in all of the United States. The restaurant was founded by Anthony Franks in the 1920s when, after reading a magazine article, he decided to put down $7,500 (and $315 in shipping costs) to start his own business. The diner was constructed by the Jerry O’Mahony company in New Jersey, delivered via railroad flatcar right to Kenosha, and then expanded some years later when Franks added a dining room and larger kitchen to it.
Featuring a menu filled with tasty options, like silver dollar pancakes, homemade French toast, a chili and cheddar omelet, and their praised “garbage plates”—platters filled with meat, vegetables, cheese, and more—Franks Diner not only is a favorite among locals and tourists but has attracted its fair share of celebrities. People like Duke Ellington, The Three Stooges, Liberace, and Mark Ruffalo have all dined here, and plenty of Green Bay Packers football players have visited, also.
There’s nothing quite like The Original Haven Brothers Diner in Providence. Founded in 1893 (yes, 1893), the family-owned restaurant is one of the oldest and first restaurants on wheels. The lauded business was opened over 125 years ago by Anne Philomena Haven, who used the money from her husband’s life insurance policy to begin her own horse-drawn lunch wagon with her brothers. Over the years, Haven Brothers morphed into a shiny metal lunch cart with seating inside.
Although everything on their menu looks delish, some dishes that pop out include the Murder Burger, made with bacon and a fried egg, and the Rodeo Burger, which has barbecue sauce and onion rings stacked in it. They also have a newly-launched ice cream truck serving delicious desserts, including sundaes, milkshakes, and ice cream floats.