Book Review: Diners

Published in Roadside Magazine, 1995


by John Baeder

(Harry Abrams, first published in 1977, updated and reissued in 1995)

By most measures, the subculture of diner fanatics is still a small one. While it is true that the whole country is turning on to the impeccable esthetics and good food of diners, only a few people endeavor to learn everything there is to learn about diners. They are an intense bunch, to be sure, and every once in a while, you might spot them in your local diner. They're the people with a camera on the table, pointing at the vintage clock, and asking questions of the hapless waitress concerning every aspect of the diner other than the food it serves. And if they don't actually have it on hand, a copy of John Baeder's Diners is probably out in the car, or at the very least at home.

By simple virtue of the fact that Diners was published a mere matter of months before Richard Gutman's American Diner, it is safe to say that this book started it all. I found my first copy in the late 1980s in a museum gift shop, and promptly gulped it down, reading in wonder at the depictions of different diners, their makes, and the stories that Baeder told with such loving eloquence. Between the text and the illustrations, it was difficult to say which was the icing and which was the cake.

While his text barely skims the surface of diner history and is fairly light on facts and figures, this classic book remains a lively and fun read because of Baeder's sense of whimsy and irony. His paintings not only record an artist's accounting of a vanishing aspect of our culture, they suddenly give extra value to this record because it was compiled by someone with obvious intelligence and talent. Baeder validates our own sense of a society veering off course. Even a quick scan of the book inspires thoughts of roadtrips and pancakes and grillmen that call you "pal." Suddenly the strip mall and the Burger King don't sit so benignly on the roadside anymore, and you find yourself yearning to see these precious fragments of Americana for yourself, before it's too late. It is in this respect that Diners achieves its ultimate objective, which is to focus your attention on objects and lifestyles that for too long have been taken for granted.

Of the few books that have been published on the subject, Diners has proven to be the most enduring if not the most successful. After its first edition in 1977, it was reprinted seven more times. This year, Abrams has reissued an updated version with 40 new paintings. Unlike the flurry of recent books on various roadside treasures that indicate only a superficial and self-serving appreciation, Baeder continues to display gratitude for the inspiration that diners have provided him. It is a testament to his devotion that after being immersed in the topic for more than 25 years, he can still mine so many jewels from it.

Some of the new paintings include O'Rourke's DinerMV (Middletown, CT), Wilson's DinerW (Waltham, MA), the Harris DinerO (East Orange, NJ), and Nick's DinerOS (Wheaton, MD), but my favorite aspect of the update is the captions. Baeder has revisited most of his original paintings with a new appreciation or anecdote to relate. I especially enjoyed his updated caption for the Super Duper Weenie Truck, because I too know firsthand the story behind its new owner, Gary Zemola, but it sure sounds a lot better when Baeder tells it. Appropriately, the Weenie Truck shares the spread with a luminous watercolor of O'Rourke's Diner (both are in Connecticut), which Baeder describes as "the finest diner in the country." Knowing that the owners of these two fine establishments have become the best of friends, Baeder indicates his near-mystical belief in the diner's ability to cultivate relationships. In Baeder's view of the cosmos, Gary Zemola and Brian O'Rourke will be forever swapping recipes in diner heaven.

As impressive as it is to view such a healthy portion of Baeder's work, the book format does not quite do justice to the actual paintings. He typically stretches a large canvas, and his depiction of the Harris Diner, for example, demonstrates not only the precision of his style, but his ability to selectively embellish the subtleties of a diner's texture. Baeder is one of the few to understand the importance of this visual texture and how the acute lack of it today makes for a colder society. It's too bad that some of this subtlety gets lost in the translation to ink and paper, though the window we peer through to get a glimpse of this world still reveals plenty.

Unfortunately, what it doesn't reveal are locations. Understand that this is a book of artwork with the artist's very personal observations. On this level, Diners delivers a rewarding visual and literary experience. However, I know from experience that whenever people see a picture of a diner, their first question is "Where is it?" For a long time, Diners was the only book in print to even give a hint of where these places were. If this were a book of vintage cars, for instance, location would not be so much of an issue because such objects are generally in private collections. Baeder's paintings themselves are mostly in private collections, but it is universally understood that diners are businesses to be patronized. Thus, Diners bears a certain responsibility to provide locations.

The first book was woefully inadequate in this regard, and the updated version is only a little better. Both editions have indexes in the back, but in the first book, one would search all over Watertown, MA in vain for the Town Square Diner. In the new version, Diners sends you to Fall River, 40 miles away from its actual home in Norwood, MA. (To clarify, Watertown is home to the similarly named Town Diner.) Diners contains several other such errors, but fortunately, there are now several other more reliable sources of such information, including Roadside.

I am also sorry to see that the little pen-and-ink illustrations are missing from this version. In the original book, Baeder doodled his fantasy diners, such as Wing's Diner, shaped like an eagle's wing, and the Skyline Diner rotating high atop a central pylon. Also absent are the illustrated drop caps at the beginning of each of his personal essays. If you own the original book, you'll notice and miss these details.

Finally, my only other misgiving concerns the caption for the Fog City Diner in San Francisco. He heaps ebullient praise upon this trendy, high-priced restaurant in a cheap diner suit. Greatness comes only to those diners that measure their success by the number of customers they know by name, not the amount of money that is stuffed into the bank, and the names that the Fog City is most familiar with are Visa and Mastercard. It lacks the historical significance of the Empire Diner (also revisited) -- and it requires reservations! Baeder's painting of the Fog City is certainly visually sumptuous, but it is the one place in the book where his intentions are in question and the book's spirit is disturbed.

Obviously, we need more books on diners. Even one as lavish and stimulating as Diners only serves to whet our appetite for the topic. The subject of diners and honest roadside culture is one that has been scantly covered over the years. Gutman gave us the definitive book on its history, and Baeder presents us the definitive book on its soul. But because this book remains a very personal testament, there is still room for thousands more pages on the topic. Diners are much more than architecture and food, they are havens for our humanity, and each one tells a story with its own distinctive vocabulary. We are indeed fortunate that John Baeder not only speaks the language, but that he continues to provide us with such an animated and skillful translation.