Diner revival and unsung heroes

Monday Book Reviews

September 20, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson

AMERICAN DINER THEN AND NOW. By Richard J.S. Gutman. HarperCollins. 272 pages. $20.

DINERS, those classic American roadside eateries, had been in decline for years when Richard J.S. Gutman "discovered" them in 1971, even though his family had eaten frequently in one or another of Allentown, Pa.'s nearly two dozen diners.

Ironically, a group of British design critics visiting Cornell University, where Mr. Gutman was an architecture student, opened his eyes to this American phenomenon. "They had never seen anything like a diner, and after a closer look, I guessed that neither had I," Mr. Gutman said.

"Like most other diner-goers I considered a diner to be merely a place you went for a meal. But when I started to really search out diners, I found them fascinating, with their infinite variety, exquisite craftsmanship and amazing combinations of materials," said Mr. Gutman, who is now a full-time consultant to diner manufacturers and operators.

He met another architect and a photographer who had been documenting diners in the mid-Atlantic region, where many diners had been converted to other uses or simply demolished. Mr. Gutman also discovered that no written history of the diner industry existed. They joined forces and published "American Diner" in 1979.

The spark of diner revival was already flickering then, and in 1982 it burst in flame with Baltimorean Barry Levinson's film, "Diner," a roman a clef about him and his buddies growing up at the old Hilltop Diner on Reisterstown Road.

The media helped make diners chic, and Mr. Gutman watched raptly as people bought old diners to restore them and demanded new ones.

Diners have emerged from the factories in innumerable configurations, but most follow the traditional appearance of shiny stainless steel panels with bright color inserts and neon lights. The nostalgia theme of the 1940s and 1950s is also very popular, concealing very modern underpinnings that meet new health, building and safety codes.

As the interest in diners heightened, Mr. Gutman received stacks of new information and photographs about individual diners and about diner history in general. With his first book long out of print, he began a new, updated version, the just-released "American Diner Then and Now."

Mr. Gutman includes a state-by-state index of diners. The Baltimore area is well represented, including the new Silver Diner in Towson, the Hollywood Diner on East Saratoga Street and Johnny Rockets in Harborplace. Unfortunately, the Double-T on Baltimore National Pike is omitted, and the name of the Bel-Loc Diner on Loch Raven Boulevard is misspelled.

According to Mr. Gutman, diners began in 1872 in Providence, R.I., when Walter Scott, who had hawked papers, fruit and candy on the street, switched to a horse-drawn lunch wagon he eventually parked in front of the Providence Journal to catch late-night workers, particularly newspaper people, and revelers who couldn't find a place to eat after the regular restaurants closed.

Scott's hallmark -- which became that of the diner industry -- was homemade food at reasonable prices. The idea caught on and spread to other cities. By 1912, in Providence alone, 50 lunch carts plied the streets from dusk to dawn.

Some operators stayed overtime, however, violating their permits and provoking complaints that they blocked traffic. When city authorities ordered the wagons off the streets by 10 a.m., the operators bought or rented plots of ground, took the wheels off the carts -- and the diner was born.

Today, in splendid examples of chic, diners are installed in posh shopping malls, a far cry from Walter Scott's horse-drawn lunch wagon or even the roadside eateries once so familiar.

Diners are quintessential Americana, and Mr. Gutman offers a comprehensive view from their humble beginning to their heyday, decline and revival. The well-illustrated book tells virtually anything you want to know about diners from construction to menus to clientele.

THE WATERY HELL. By Ray Thompson. Creative Books. 334 pages. $19.95.

U.S. Merchant Marine crews sailed into harm's way from the beginning of World War II until the bitter end and sustained a casualty rate well above that of the actual fighting forces. Still, they received little credit for their role in the victory.

The Merchant Marine manned the 2,751 Liberty Ships turned out by 18 shipyards, including one in Baltimore, in the four years that historians call the largest and fastest shipbuilding program in history. It took an average of 58 days to construct each vessel.

Ray Thompson joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 as a teen-ager and sailed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for three years, helping to deliver men and equipment to battle areas across "the watery hell" that provided the book's title.

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