The classic, old-school diner is a dying breed. Once ubiquitous from coast to coast, these no-frills temples to simple, home-style American fare are today going the way of the dodo, replaced by an endless variety of trendier and healthier options. But thankfully, there are still plenty of these shrines to old-fashioned dining out there if you know where to look, and we’ve tracked down the top 15.
The huge, gleaming diners with menus that read like an encyclopedia that can be found along New Jersey’s highways are on one end of the diner spectrum, but on the other end you’ll find a completely different animal altogether: the hole-in-the-wall.
America’s best holes-in-the-wall are small, unassuming, and in many cases completely unchanged over the (oftentimes many) decades since they opened. Some might call them “greasy spoons,” but the best of the bunch serve an unchanged menu of expertly-prepared classics like burgers, eggs, pancakes, hash browns, and meatloaf. Many have counters where regulars can sit and watch their food being prepared by nimble cooks on a flat-top griddle.
The best hole-in-the-wall diners are places where time stands still, where the food is delicious and inexpensive, where the menu is chock-full of tried-and-true classics, and where a visit is like stepping into a time capsule of American culinary history.
In business since 1967, this picture-perfect corner lunch counter is run by August Muzzi (who inherited the restaurant from his father, Angelo, and can usually be found manning the griddle) and his family. Full of regulars and dripping with old-school charm, Angelo’s has just 12 stools and a handful of booths, and still retains many of its original fixtures and just about all of its original menu. The bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich is a masterpiece of the form, the pancakes are flawless, and we’ll let you guess how great the grilled cheese is.
Located on the quieter end of Bourbon Street (if such a thing is even possible) is the quaint and charming Clover Grill, a greasy spoon with a few tables and an 11-stool counter that serves stellar half-pound burgers, omelets, biscuits and gravy, sandwiches, and pie à la mode. It’s the kind of place where what you see is what you get, and what you see is a New Orleans landmark.
This teeny tiny restaurant is literally a shack on the side of the road, and it’s so small that guests sit on picnic tables outside. It has a surprisingly large menu, with a wide variety of sandwich options (including a killer Cuban), but the thing to order is Guy Fieri’s Triple D Triple Play (which Fieri created while there filming an episode): a 6.5-ounce fresh-ground patty topped with slow-roasted pork, pastrami, Swiss, American, tomatoes, jalapeños, onion rings, and mustard on sourdough.
If you’re looking for a diner with real soul, drop into Dottie’s in Woodbury. A no-frills menu of simple New England diner classics is topped off by stunningly delicious, simple donuts. In 2006, Dottie Sperry purchased the Depression-era Phillips Diner, kept all of its historical touches, and renamed it Dottie’s. Pancakes, French toast, clam chowder, sandwiches, and stellar pot pies are all on offer, but we’ll repeat: Don’t leave without trying the doughnuts.
Scores of St. Louis residents were despondent when the beloved Eat-Rite Diner, a perfectly-preserved 1930s-era old-school diner with red swivel stools and plenty of gleaming white tile, closed last year after the owner decided to retire. But a local couple took it over and re-opened it earlier this year, and the throngs have returned. The menu at Eat-Rite is as classic as it gets, with eggs, hotcakes, burgers, chili, grilled ham and cheese, milkshakes, and hot tamales all top sellers. If you’re really hungry, go for the Slinger, with breakfast meat, two eggs, potatoes, and chili.
A humble, no-frills lunch counter on tony Fifth Avenue, just south of Madison Square? That’s Eisenberg’s, which has been going strong, against all odds, since 1929. This no-frills diner, with its 25-foot-long stone counter and photos of celebrities on the walls, has remained essentially unchanged since opening nearly 90 years ago. All the diner staples are here, including burgers, tuna melts, hot open sandwiches, and pancakes, but don’t miss the opportunity to sample some Jewish classics, including a Reuben, knockwurst, chopped liver, and lox, eggs, and onions. Make sure you wash it all down with a lime rickey.
This small trailer-style diner caters to Ann Arbor locals and University of Michigan students and faculty alike, who jockey for tables at which they can dig into menu items like the Half & Half Burger (with 50 percent bacon and 50 percent ground beef), gyro platters, omelets, and their famous Hippie Hash — a layer of hash browns topped with grilled vegetables and feta cheese.
Frank’s was constructed as an old railcar-style diner in 1926, shipped from Jersey to a prime spot in downtown Kenosha, and opened there later that year. A seven-booth dining room was added in 1935 and the kitchen was expanded in the 1940s, but not much else has changed since then. Settle into a stool at the original counter and order up pancakes, biscuits and gravy, or a burger, or do as the regulars do and opt for the famous Garbage Plate: three or five eggs, scrambled into hash browns with peppers, onions, meat (go for the house-made corned beef hash), cheese, and vegetables, served with homemade bread.
Constructed in New Jersey and shipped lock, stock, and barrel to New Hampshire in 1961, this all-American diner has been a must-visit for presidential candidates for decades, and the menu is chock-full of diner staples as well as homestyle New England classics. The patty melt, mac and cheese, and blueberry pancakes are spot-on, but don’t pass up the opportunity to sample standards like fried belly clams, homemade cod cakes, pickled fried tripe, and Yankee pot roast.
The small and homey Otis Café is a beloved Highway 18 destination, a small roadhouse with a vintage sign and a decidedly old-fashioned interior. Just about everything on the menu, from bread to sausage gravy, is homemade, and while the burgers and chicken fried steak are spot-on, breakfast is where this place really shines. Make sure you order the most famous dish on the menu, German potatoes: crispy hash browns topped with green onions, white Cheddar, and anything else you desire.
If you go to this old-school 28-seat breakfast counter, a longtime Baltimore staple, you don’t need to order what Michael Phelps used to back in his training days — three fried egg sandwiches, an omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast, and three chocolate chip pancakes — but no one can fault you if you do; after all, the versions of these diner classics you’ll receive will be basically perfect. Going strong for more than 50 years, Pete’s is a family-run affair (owners Dave and Darlene are there every day), and it’s the kind of place where the head waitress is named Debbie and she’s been there for more than 30 years. It’s open at 7 a.m. during the week and 8 on weekends, and if you go, don’t forget that it’s cash-only.
This New Hampshire diner is a certified institution, and not just for the food: It’s a must-visit for every presidential candidate on the campaign trail, making it a political institution as well. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are on offer 24/7, with perfect versions of old-school diner favorites including pancakes, corned beef hash, biscuits and gravy, chicken-fried steak, Monte Cristo sandwiches, turkey dinner, meatloaf, liver and onions, and homemade beans being served to the hungry masses since 1922. Don’t forget to wash it all down with an Arrow root beer or cream soda, made just for the diner.
This old-school chrome diner has been going strong since 1947, when it was built by the Worcester Dining Company to feed local factory workers. Today it’s a favorite among the local college students and artists, and is widely regarded as the best late-night eatery in the city. (It’s open 24/7.) The menu includes a variety of breakfast items (including the super-popular Boston crème pancakes), more than a dozen Benedicts, burgers, sandwiches, frappes (a New England spin on the milkshake), and a surprisingly good beer list.
The Summit Diner is the quintessential New Jersey railcar-diner, dating back to 1929. The state’s oldest diner is also one of its best-preserved, with a long counter, some booths, and plenty of old wood and an ancient griddle. The only menu is up above the counter, and you can’t go wrong with the burger or any of owner Jimmy Greberis’ Greek fare. But the must-order is the slider, which isn’t what you’re thinking: It’s actually a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich, the classic Jersey breakfast.
This tiny diner, tucked inside a strip mall, is a bona fide time capsule, with wood-paneled walls, a long counter, a handful of tables, and not much else. But it’s a quintessential neighborhood hangout, and the staff is super-welcoming and friendly. Go for the blueberry pancakes, French toast, hash browns, and chicken fried steak with sausage gravy. This restaurant is right up there with the 101 best casual restaurants in America.
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