One of the great things about living in such a vast country as ours is that anything can be described as characteristically American or un-American, so long as you support your assertion with the omnipotent confidence of patriotism and raucous jingoistic shouting. To me, there’s nothing more American than a roadside diner. If you don’t agree with me, you’re probably a terrorist.
Beyond the obvious associations with ‘50s-era U.S.A.—framed portraits of Elvis, Sinatra, Monroe; the whole brushed steel and neon tubing shtick; paraphernalia associated with Eisenhower’s “Federal Aid Highway Act”—there’s something more deeply and less tangibly American about diners than meets the eye. Don’t get me wrong; black-and-white tiling charms the poodle skirt right off me. I just think there’s more than nostalgic kitschiness to be appreciated at these remarkable establishments.
Just this morning, I sat at a red leather booth in Hadley’s Route 9 Diner, the dineriest of diners around. Sure, there’s the rotating display of freshly baked pies and the 75-page illustrated menu featuring more specials than non-specials. The rainbow-colored jukebox glimmers in the corner, filled with oldies and rock-’n’-roll classics. My heart flutters when the waitresses call me hon and darlin’, and suddenly I’m transported back to the days when roller skating was still cool.
But there’s nothing overblown about diners. They somehow manage to be lurid and understated simultaneously, simply existing as they are without feeling the need for selfconsciousness or apologia.
Perhaps it’s this sense of understated, unapologetic authenticity that tempts me to call diners particularly American. These roadside eateries permit their customers to express themselves freely and unapologetically, as they do with their own design schemes. These are places where anyone can come to eat a reasonably priced omelet at any hour of the day, no questions asked. As silly as it sounds, I hear echoes of the American Dream.
In today’s diners, you’ll find a mostly older crowd: white-haired veterans wearing Navy caps and elderly couples who’ve brought along wallet-sized photos of their grandchildren. It’s not uncommon to hear three, four, even five different languages being spoken at any point in time, not counting variations in tone and accent. Locals and passersby of all races, creeds and ethnicities intermingle with great ease. I’ve never once felt uncomfortable sitting at a booth alone, breathing calmly to myself as I sip on my seventh cup of diluted coffee, absorbing the miraculously peaceful diversity of my surroundings.
Lastly, I’ve found that very few diners offer wi-fi. I think of them as one of the last existing respites from hyperconnectedness, designated locations where individuals come to eat, to interact, or simply to rest, largely free from the click-a-clack of laptop keyboards … for now.
As homage to diners and all their American greatness, I’ve assembled a list of some of my favorites in the area. Allow yourself a break from culinary high-mindedness and patronize a few of these noteworthy joints—you won’t regret it.
The Route 9 Diner
458 Russell St., Hadley, MA 01035
Open 24 hours
As I mentioned, this is the dineriest of diners around, featuring every stereotypical artifact you could ever think of. The Route 9 Diner is very efficiently managed and well organized. There’s rarely a wait, and you can be in and out of its front door as quickly or slowly as you’d like. On one of the largest menus of any Pioneer Valley-area diner, the options range from eggs to Greek souvlaki. Enjoy their delicious egg creams with malt for a taste of the past.
372 State Rd. (Rtes. 5 and 10), Whately, MA 01093
Open 24 hours
Part truck stop, part gas station and part diner, the Whately has been in its location at the intersection of Rte. 5 and I-91 since the early 1970s; my long drives from Vermont to Massachusetts owe it a substantial debt.
This renowned late-night grub spot has appeared in USA Today as well as a Food Channel special, making it a popular destination for celebrities: BB King, Vanilla Ice, The Beastie Boys and Chris Farley are all said to have visited. You can’t go wrong here.
99 Main St., Florence, MA 01040
Open every day 6 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Miss Flo’s, as it’s affectionately called, has been open since 1941, making it one of the oldest diners around. The interior is perfectly clean and comfortable, but nonetheless recalls its old age. With affordable breakfast and lunch options, this cozy eatery doesn’t seat very many, making it particularly nice for small group meet-ups. The staff is efficient and courteous, and the servers know quite a few of their customers on a first-name basis. If you’re trying to become a local somewhere, look no further.
324 King St., Northampton, MA 01060
Open Monday – Friday 5:30 a.m. – 11 p.m. and Saturday 6 a.m. – 11 p.m. Closed Sundays.
The Bluebonnet is my personal go-to spot for writing and thinking. Open since 1950, this diner has expanded over the years, and now includes a full-service cocktail bar and a 150-seat banquet room. Worry not—the front of the house still offers booth and counter service, and definitely feels more like a diner than a restaurant. Kids will love the G Scale electric train that traverses the walls of the front room. The tasty breakfast specials are not to be missed.
410 N. Main St., Leeds, MA 01053
Open 6 a.m. – 3 p.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. weekends
From the outside, this diner doesn’t look like much. Don’t be fooled: in my opinion, Look Restaurant serves the best diner food in the area by far. When I ate here last week, they were offering a breakfast taco special with chorizo and Monterey Jack that blew my mind. Look can seat around 40 customers, and though the inside appears notably dilapidated, I’ll assuredly be back for more of their tasty fare. Shout out to the particularly cute 20-something waitress who served us coffee: if you’re reading this, send me an email!
Fifties Diner & Ice Cream Shop
363 Burnett Rd, Chicopee, MA 01020
Open 24 hours
This Chicopee-area diner and truck stop is located right where I-90 meets I-291, just south of Chicopee Memorial State Park. When I visited this week, half the restaurant was under construction, which didn’t make for the best dining experience. That being said, I’d recommend Fifties Diner anyway: my waitress was extremely friendly and apologetic, they offer a phenomenal dessert menu, and you can’t beat round-the-clock service. Don’t miss their salad bar if you’re in the mood for something light.