The Olympia Diner - One of hundreds of diners photographed by Larry Cultrera
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Recently, we published an article about pre-fabricated building methods and pondered if this was the future of restaurant construction. Well, as it turns out, it may just be a trend that owes a lot to the past. Just ask Larry Cultrera. He is a connoisseur of the diner as an American architectural art form.

“Companies like the Worcester Lunch Car Company started the modular building trend,” says Cultrera. “They probably didn’t know that’s what they were doing, but they did.”

And Cultrera should know. Diners have been his passion since he was about 5 years old. A strong early memory of a diner came when his father was driving by the  Star Lite Diner in Medford, Massachusetts on Mystic Ave. They drove by it often enough for Larry to take notice. Larry saw that this building looked like a train car and asked his dad about it. He was surprised when his dad told him that it was never a train car. Instead, it was built in a factory to look like a train.

The Star Lite became one of the earliest diner experiences for Larry a few years later (1965 through 1968 when they closed).

This encounter started a lifelong fascination with all aspects of diner culture. The 65-year-old Cultrera lives in Saugus, Massachusetts and has been documenting diners for over 35 years.

Star-Lite Diner
Star Lite Diner – 383 Mystic Avenue in Medford, MA (A 1948 vintage Worcester Lunch Car Company diner). This is the diner Larry asked his dad about when he was around 5 years old. He had some of his earliest diner experiences here. This photo from 1948 was provided by the Medford Police Dept. and was part of a traffic study done at that time. The diner closed and was reportedly moved to a salvage yard in 1968.

 

The Great Diner Renaissance of the Late ’70s

Larry credits a couple of books that came out in the late 70’s with really kicking off his hobby of photographing this iconic feature of Americana.

“There was a painter named John Baeder who did very detailed paintings of diners. He put out a book called ‘Diners‘ in 1978,” recalled Cultrera.

Coincidentally, that wasn’t the only book on diners to come out during this same period. Richard J.S. Gutman and Elliott Kauffman, in collaboration with David Slovic also published “American Diner” in 1979. And if that wasn’t enough, Donald Kaplan and Alan Bellink  published “Diners of the Northeast” in 1980.

These books served as the inspiration for a hobby that would ultimately lead to a publishing career for Cultrera.

Agawam Diner, U.S. Route 1, Rowley, MA. This is a 1954 vintage Fodero Diner, still operated by the Galanis family. It is the last of 4 different diners that the family has owned and operated. Photo from the early 1980’s.

Birth of a Hobby

“I started taking photos in November of 1980,” says Cultrera. “This was all film photography at that time. By about 1983, I had begun using 35mm slides.”

The result? Thousands of photos documenting diners all around New England and the Northeast.

“My first photo was the Bypass Diner in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which still exists. It’s the American Dream Diner now,” says Cultrera.

Cultrera believes that he has photographed 865 diners over the last 37 years. That’s a lot of snapshots. And although he started experimenting with digital photography around the year 2000, he didn’t go completely digital until 2008 so most of those shots are good old film photography.

“I’m in the process of digitizing all my old 35mm slides,” says Cultrera.

In addition to all the photos, Larry also has a collection of diner memorabilia. He says that he’d like to donate the entire collection to be preserved for posterity. But for now, he is still looking for the right place to house the collection.

 

Bypass Diner, Herr Street, Harrisburg, PA. This is Larry’s very first diner photograph shot on November 29, 1980. The diner still exists and is relatively unchanged – operating as the American Dream Diner today. An early 1950s DeRaffele diner.

 

In addition to the photos, Larry keeps detailed logs on the diners he documents. This includes addresses, the manufacturer, ownership information and in many cases, the former location of the building.

“We have a lot of relocated diner buildings in the Northeast. Some get relocated as far away as Europe,” recounts Cultrera.

Since the buildings are modular, they often get relocated. And diners have been around a very long time. In fact, what we would recognize as a diner has been around even before the name “diner” was used to describe them.

The term ‘diner’ didn’t start to appear until 1923 to 1925. But the concept has been around long before that,” says Cultrera.

He also notes that certain aspects of diner design that we recognize today developed in the 1920s through the 1950s as new building materials came into popular use in America.

“You began to see counter-tops go from marble to Formica. Backsplashes used to be ceramic tile and evolved into Formica or stainless steel,” explains Cultrera.

Dan's DIner - Spencertown, NY
Dan’s Diner, Route 203 in Spencertown, NY. This diner gets around. Originally operated for decades in Durham, Connecticut where Larry first photographed it in the early to mid 1980s when it was Moe’s Diner (AKA the Durham Diner). It moved to Spencertown in the 1990s when Dan Rundell purchased it. Rundell spent 10 years completely restoring this diner to its 1920s splendor, it is a showpiece now. It was built by the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company.

 

Archeology, Books & Blogs

All these elements began to form our iconic vision of the classic American diner. So iconic, that it is a field that is actually studied academically. As his involvement with diner culture progressed, Larry became involved with the Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA). Larry began to participate in SCA events and was a frequent contributor to SCA publications. He started the popular “Diner Hotline” column in the SCA newsletter to help educate and preserve knowledge about diner culture.

In 2007, the Diner Hotline column made the jump to the Internet and was reborn as the Diner Hotline Blog. For the last decade, Larry has been sharing his knowledge and photos with the online community.

Village Diner, Route 209 in Milford, PA. A wonderfully intact 1950s Mountain View Diner. Photo from early 1980s.

 

Getting it in Print

In the midst of all this, Larry’s work caught the eye of The History Press, a specialty publisher. They asked if he would be interested in writing a book for them on diners. Larry agreed and in 2011, his first book was published as part of the American Palate series: Classic Diners of Massachusetts.

With a foreword by Richard J.S. Gutman, one of the authors that had inspired Larry all those years ago, the book was well-received. But Larry still felt like he could do better.

“The publisher really wanted a lot of detail on the diner menus. But it felt like overkill to me. And most of the criticism of the first book is around the menu content,” says Larry.

But with his second book, “New Hampshire Diners: Classic Granite State Eateries Larry was able to create the type of book he really wanted to make. Another one of Larry’s inspirations wrote the foreword for the new book: painter and author John Baeder.

“I fell like the second book was closer to my vision for what a book on diners should be,” says Cultrera.

Diners in Pop Culture

As a setting for films, it would be hard to imagine a more iconic location than the American diner. Sure, it’s easy to point to  Barry Levinson’s classic 1982 film, “Diner” (a star-studded film that would help define the careers of Hollywood A-listers like Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin and many others). But the impact of diner culture is more ubiquitous than just a single film. Diners have become almost stereotypical shorthand for a bygone era of American culture. And their inclusion as a location for films has a longstanding tradition.

The diner’s mobile qualities mean that a specific diner can be relocated to create the perfect movie set. That’s just what happened for the 2002 Tom Hanks film, “Road to Perdition.”

Red Line Diner, Brighton, Massachusetts
Red Line Diner, Brighton, MA (a section of Boston). Photo from October 26, 2013. This diner is a film star. The diner started out life in Dorchester (another section of Boston) back in the 1940s. It was originally the Englewood Diner that was closed and moved in 1979. Then it was kept in storage  for several years before being moved again circa 1985 to a new location in Dorchester. Quite a few moves followed and it almost got set up in at least 2 other locations. It even made a trip out toward Chicago to be used in a cameo appearance in the movie, “Road To Perdition.” New Balance Shoes Footwear now owns the diner. They renamed it the Red Line Diner and set it up near their corporate headquarters to be used for private functions. A 1941 vintage Sterling diner built by J.B. Judkins Company.

 

The full history of the Red Line Diner (formerly the Englewood Diner) can be found on Larry’s blog. The diner has a cameo appearance in the film. But the effort to get the iconic diner into the film was worthy of a starring role. The entire diner was moved from its location in Massachusetts to Chicago just to be used for the film that also starred Paul Newman. And after the movie was complete, the diner was moved right back.

And although it is no longer open to the public, it is still in use today by the New Balance Footwear Company as a location for their own private events.

Englewood Diner in The Road to Perdition
Publicity still from The Road to Perdition starring the Englewood Diner.

Blue-Eyed Soul Food Diner?

Diners haven’t only had an impact on the movies. When Philadelphia’s own Hall & Oates were completing their 1973 album, they went in search of the perfect subject for the album’s cover. The album would be titled, “Abandoned Luncheonette” and would include the Hall & Oates standard, “She’s Gone.

Larry documents the history of both this diner and its eventual evolution into an album cover star in his Diner Hotline blog in exquisite and extensive detail.

Lest you think that this is just a one-time deal, Larry believes that he owns about 15 albums that feature diners on their covers.

Rosedale Diner, (AKA the Abandoned Luncheonette)
Rosedale Diner, (AKA the Abandoned Luncheonette) – Route 724 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Photo from February 26, 1982. This diner operated for many years on High Street in Pottstown. It moved in 1965 when the property owner found a different use for the site. Bill Faulk, the owner of the diner, had some land out on Route 724 where he moved the diner. He had hopes of reopening the place that never came to fruition. In 1973, Daryl Hall and John Oates approached Faulk about the possibility of using the exterior of the diner for a photo shoot to be used on their second LP, Abandoned Luncheonette (cover at right). This is a 1946 vintage Fodero diner.

Diner Culture for the New Millennium

As diners cruise into their second century of existence, they show no sign of slowing down. Diners remain a fixture across America, both in big cities and small towns.

And thanks to historians like Larry Cultrera, we will always have a reference for those diners that came before and paved the way for the modern diner concepts that continue to thrive today.

Check out a few more pieces of living history in the images below:

White Manna Diner
White Manna Hamburgers, River Street in Hackensack, New Jersey. A late 1940’s vintage Paramount diner that is famous for its sliders. Photo from September 24,1984.

 

The Dining Car Diner
The Dining Car, 8826 Frankford Avenue in the Torresdale neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This is a 1981 vintage Swingle Diner designed in a retro 1930s style. Photo from July 1, 1985.

 

Tastee 29 Diner
Tastee 29 Diner, (now operating as the 29 Diner) – 10536 Fairfax Boulevard in Fairfax, Virginia. At one time this was part of a chain of Tastee Diners in the Washington, D.C. area. Other Tastee Diners are still operating in Silver Spring, Laurel and Bethesda, Maryland. This photo was shot in early 1990. This is an early 1940s vintage Mountain View diner.

 

Tim's Diner
Tim’s Diner, Water Street in Leominster, Massachusetts. A very small Silk City Diner dating from 1949. This is Larry’s all-time favorite diner. It has since lost the stainless-steel façade due to a couple of accidents (read: runaway cars). Photo from September 5, 1981.

 

Olympia Diner
Olympia Diner, Berlin Turnpike, Newington, Connecticut. Photo from November 27, 1981. This was Larry’s very first successful time exposure, the shot was taken in the early morning (pre-dawn) in the rain. Luckily, he had a 1979 Chevy van and a tripod for the camera. This is one of four shots taken from inside the van. A 1950s vintage Jerry O’Mahony diner.

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