“There's a safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milkshake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner.” – David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish
My family and I were still living in Moscow when the first McDonalds in the Soviet Union opened in the city’s Pushkin Square in 1990. With thousands of others, we waited in a line that zigzagged around the city square and surrounding blocks for hours. It was the first time I ever tasted a cheeseburger and milkshake, or had ever set foot in a fast food diner. This was not a typical restaurant experience by any measure, and it heralded a big change in the nation’s economic landscape. For me, though, it was about the décor, and the taste of that hot apple pie burning my tongue. Although it wasn’t the first time we dined out, it’s remained one of my most vivid childhood memories.
When we moved to the States a few years later, I arrived with a vision of America based on those few sacred excursions to McDonalds, as well as dubbed bootlegs of American movies and episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 and Santa Barbara. While life in California wasn’t quite how it was in TV land, the American diner has maintained its allure, especially when I graduated from McDonalds and moved on to the city’s many independently owned diners: Sparky’s and Baghdad Café (RIP) in the Castro, Grubstake near Polk street, even Lucky Penny sitting at the top of the Richmond district. With cracked and peeling Naugahyde seats, paper place mats, chrome tables, and a reliable selection of greasy foods, there is a grubby charm and a sense of familiarity that is shared by all diners, which can be quite comforting. It isn't really about the food but the conversations and connections, the people watching, and the panoply of emotions on display. On any given night, you're guaranteed to witness at least one lovers’ quarrel, and so many heartfelt, confessional conversations seem to happen over a stack of pancakes at 2am.
A lot of diners, particularly places like Mel’s or Laurie’s in San Francisco, are based as much on the classic eateries of the early 20th century as they are on the romanticized silver screen atmospheres from movies like American Graffiti, Back to the Future, or (obviously) Diner. That self-referential hominess is emblematic of America’s fascinating ability to continuously reinvent itself while still firmly holding onto a nostalgic past. For that same reason, just as much as I enjoy Formica counter tops and tinny sounding jukeboxes, so do I love a good movie or TV scene set in a diner. And there are so many to choose from, beyond the oft-referenced “I’ll have what she’s having” moment from When Harry Met Sally. After quite a bit of wrangling, I’ve managed to narrow it down to five of my favorite clips.