Being Dayhawks: the American Diner

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It is three o clock in the morning; except it is eight o clock in the morning.

I have taken my iPad and sit hunched over it in the dark hotel room a couple of blocks from Central Park. Words woke me up insisting to be written, though it is dark outside in New York City, because the words are still on English time. hough, admittedly, they have slept in a little.

But this, I am informed, is the city which never sleeps. And on the walls of the comfortably dog-eared hotel where we are staying is more testament to this: prints of one of my favourite artists, Edward Hopper.

And inevitably, Nighthawks makes a show, Hopper’s iconic picture of middle-of-the-night customers, of a phenomenon we don’t have in England.

I speak, of course, of the diner.

But for Shrewsday’s, who love their stomachs, the Diner is a sub-category of tourism. We are fascinated by them because they do what the Brisish seem unable to do: provide good food cheap and fast in a no-frills setting.

We had a great flight and arrived in time for a stroll round Central Park, ambling like the pigeons without much of a sense if direction around this rather lovely piece if landscaping, unable quite to pinpoint the zoo where Alex the Lion lived.

At 3:20, our tummies thought it was seven, but that was ok. Because so did every diner in this great city, including the one at the end of the street in which our hotel stands.

We bagged the corner seat, at a glad right angle, on the corner of 57th. The perfect place to gawp at the taxis and the traffic lights and the crossings and the dogs trotting by on leads.

It was hot, and the waitress arrived immediately. That never happens in Britain. With four glasses of iced water on this hot day.
Which never happens in Britain. We gulped gratefully and perused the menu which had both healthy and unhealthy choices, extensive short-order possibilities, and that most certainly never happens in Britain.

I would kill for one of these in my town, I thought. I would never eat in.

We all chose the unhealthy choices, naturally,though we marvelled like true food tourists at a salad served in a bowl made out of cucumber strips and dutifully ate our greens.

The waitress did not know what Phil was ordering when he asked for scallops. But she persevered and served his with fries as requested-and fresh broccoli.

Truly, this is a wondrous city, for fresh broccoli is hard to find alongside chips in Britain.

And not only that, but if Edward Hopper is to be believed,I could potter down to the end of the street right now and stare soulfully through the glass with a cuppa cawfee.

Tourists value the strangest things. Central Park was really nice. But my favourite find of the day?

A real-live, honest-to-goodness, Nighthawks-style diner.
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46 thoughts on “Being Dayhawks: the American Diner

  1. FYI … one of the BEST places to find toilets in NYC is in the Times Warner Center at the SouthWest corner of Central Park. It is a nice stop … especially on a hot day. Lots of shops, a large Whole Foods, and several HUGE free rest room areas.
    and….about the Ice Water delivered to the table…. That is something I greatly miss when visiting England.

  2. *mimimimimi…*
    ‘Nothing could be finer than to be inside a diner in the mor-hor-hor-ning!’
    I would have thought that Central Park would have been a higher light of Noo Yawk.

  3. I love Edward Hopper and on my only visit to NY didn’t manage to find him. I made the mistake of going to posh restaurants and hated it. Great pictures, Kate, and through your words I’m doing what I should have done when I had the chance. I am the worst traveller in the world, which is why I’ve stopped doing it. I do vicarious travelling now:)

  4. NYC is indeed a place that seems so different than any other. I recall that my very first trip to New York on biz found me wandering the streets and taking subways to nowhere just to take a ride. The fact that it was well after Midnight seemed to strike terror into the hearts of the office folks I visited the next day. I have always found that the best part of New York is jogging or walking very early in the morning and watching the small shop owners out front spraying down the sidewalks with hoses and setting out their enticing wares. Definitely the small diners and restaurants are the best, you meet the most interesting folks and hear some pretty crazy stories.

    1. I agree totally. We were bright eyed and bushy tailed at 4am the morning after our arrival, and by 7am we were doing just as you describe, Lou. That early morning walk will stay with me as long as I live. Magic.

  5. This is one of my favorite paintings of all time. I got to see it in person once at the Art Institute of Chicago.

    Having lived in the US my whole life, all night diners have been a staple of my existence, especially considering my reputation as an insomniac. I don’t know what I would do without them!

  6. I saw that Hopper painting………in Milan. We stumbled upon a huge exhibit of his work there, and I stood in front of that particular painting for a long time.

    I hope Maddie and Felix are enjoying America. I’d be very interested to hear what they think of things. Having been to London zillions of times, I’m sure New York isn’t overwhelming for them.

    Because I have to walk through St Pancras every time I go to London (for the play of light on glass), I will say that Grand Central Station is like drifting through a starry night.

    I hope you had breakfast for dinner at the diner. 🙂

  7. Enjoy New York. I very briefly visited there once when I was a teenager, many years ago. I love that painting. Pretend I’m singing: “New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, and people ride in a hole in the ground. New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town!”

  8. Kate, glad to know you are having an interesting time. Looking at hoppers picture of a diner, I am not sure I would like it, but food at unlikely hours must be a bonus when you are offset by five hours! McCaulay is having two walks a day, all the food he needs (not wants), and great companionship with Spice. He will be back with you as soon as you call.
    Dad

  9. Kate, diners do have their charm out here and it is true, that New York portions can seem super-sized depending on where you go for chow. I’m glad that your visit has gotten off to a great start. The Edward Hopper exhibit that westseventhfreelance might be referring to is at the Whitney, but MoMA might have some Hoppers on display in their permanent collection:

    http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/HopperDrawing

  10. Pat (imissmetoo.wordpress.com) posted some pictures of diners the other day, and, I think, commented about visiting a small town and asking where the locals eat. I had never really thought about hem before, so your two posts go rather nicely together in my education.

  11. I’ve always found diners to be extremely comforting. I don’t know why. If I’m in a good mood, being in a diner makes it better; if I’m in a bad mood, being in a diner soothes me. I imagine the waitress didn’t originally understand your husband’s request because she’s used to hearing the Yank pronunciation, with a very flat, broad A as in “Pall Mall”!

    Anyway, so glad you’re having a great time. And thank you for bringing the milder weather with you—up until last week, it was brutally hot.

  12. Guess what? I actually read this yesterday (Sunday) ’round about noon, at a diner! Yep. Our little local favorite, Calbay, where the owner comes up and says “good to see you again” and we order our food; always breakfast food, even for lunch. Anyhooo, I chuckled, read it out loud to Tom, and then dove into my pecan waffle while he devoured his bacon and eggs.

    I enjoyed your perspective on the diner, Kate. We take them for granted here in the States, big city and small alike have them, though, there is nothing like the ones in New Yawk.

    I’ve seen Nighthawks. It is a favorite in these parts as the Art Institute of Chicago has it in their collection. Someone(s) mentioned the Hopper Exhibit at the Moma. If you can, go there with the children. Even if you don’t see Hopper, they will see some pix that they will remember. Walk through the Plaza Hotel – and then read “Eloise at the Plaza”, a kiddie book for grownups. Oh, I’ll stop or you’ll have no time for enjoying the Big Apple.

  13. I delight in experiencing NYC through your eyes, and being entertained by what I suppose we take quite for granted. The diner is a staple of American life, I think. Your observations challenge me to find a little history as to how they started, if perhaps there is a story there at all. I am quite sure you must have seen all the Nighthawks parodies? The crew of Star Trek Enterprise, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis and Bogart…or the Simpsons! They are truly campy, but I think were created from a perspective of admiring a truly wonderful artist.

    Final thought on the diner…You now have firsthand knowledge about our obesity problem. What do you think of these incredible serving sizes? Yikes!

    1. Here’s a little history of diners, Debra ~

      When people worked the late shift, food trucks would arrive during their “lunch break” so they could get something decent to eat in the middle of the night. These “dining cars” could be pulled to a site and towed away again after the midnight lunch rush was over.

      In time, the “dining cars” became known as “diners” (quick, inexpensive, and tasty food). Later still, they became stationary fixtures by claiming a more permanent spot of real estate to call home.

  14. LOL – oh Kate, you must head south and check out a “meat and three” if you love our American diners. But I must warn you, cross the Mason Dixon line and macaroni and cheese becomes a vegetable 🙂 P.S. be sure to check out NYC Pizza by the slice ….. mmmm tasty!

  15. I love Nighthawks. And thank you for the appreciation of diners. I love diners, too, but having grown up with them I can’t really see how special they might be to someone who didn’t grow up with them… (Umberto Eco once wrote a little paean to diner coffee, the old-fashioned percolated kind: “delicious, fragrant, goes down like pure spring water … contains more caffeine than four espressos.”)

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