When Chris Dobbs was a lad, his dad, Charlie Dobbs, often took him to diners across Connecticut for breakfast, talk and camaraderie.
“That’s what really hooked me,” says Dobbs, who has written articles on the history and architecture of diners. In April he gave a lecture on the topic at the New Haven Museum in conjunction with its “Road Trip!” exhibition, which continues through June 17. “I have a passion for diners,” he told the crowd.
Dobbs, executive director of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, confessed to us, “When I talk about diners, I get a little animated. It’s an exciting subject.” He added he was getting hungry as he went on about evocative places serving eggs, sausage and pancakes.
But Dobbs takes a somewhat scholarly approach. He maintains there are five characteristics that need to be met to fit the definition of a classic American diner:
- The structure must be prefabricated and hauled to a site.
- The dining area must feature a counter and stools.
- There must be “home cooking” at reasonable prices.
- The cooking must take place behind the counter where you can watch it happening.
- The diner’s architecture must be linked to transportation. (Through the years, diner design has mimicked that of the Pullman railroad car, the streamliner train and the rocket ship.)
Dobbs’ historical narrative begins in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872 with “the father of the American diner”: newspaper pressman Walter Scott.
“Workers getting out on the graveyard shift needed a place to eat,” Dobbs notes. “One night in 1872, Walter Scott fixed up a lunch wagon and set up outside the Providence Journal [newspaper] when workers were getting off their shift.”
Six years later, Thomas H. Buckley of Worcester, Massachusetts, introduced his first lunch wagon there. He expanded to 275 towns nationwide by 1898 and became known as “the lunch wagon king.”
But by the early 20th century the old lunch wagon looked obsolete. And so lunch-wagon manufacturers modeled their structures on the Pullman railroad car. Many of the eateries’ owners established their businesses on permanent sites.
Dobbs, of course, shows photos of his favorite diners when he gives talks about this. Near the top of his list is Skee’s Diner in Torrington, which Dobbs thinks might be the oldest in the state. It was built in the late 1920s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and originally set up in Old Saybrook. In 1945 it was moved to Torrington. It’s been closed since 2002, the same year it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Torrington Historic Preservation Trust acquired the diner in 2013 and moved it from its Main Street location, with the goal of one day restoring and reopening it.
“Skee’s is amazing architecturally,” Dobbs tells me in an interview. “It’s all mahogany on the inside, with frosted glass windows, arched like a railroad car.”
Dobbs also loves Collin’s Diner in North Canaan, with its sky-and-cobalt-blue exterior, marble countertops and wood paneling. “My dad took me there when we were headed up Route 7 for ski trips.”
Dobbs’ top five also includes Zip’s in Dayville, part of Killingly in far eastern Connecticut. “Zip’s is one of the best 1950s diners in Connecticut. Its sign simply says ‘EAT.’ You don’t have to say more than that.”
When I ask Dobbs to name his all-time favorite diner, he says, “That’s like asking you to choose your favorite kid!” But he does say O’Rourke’s Diner in Middletown is “one of my favorites.”
“O’Rourke’s has exquisite food and (owner) Brian O’Rourke is a master chef,” Dobbs says. “He is so welcoming. When I go to O’Rourke’s, one-third of the pleasure is talking to the staff and watching them in action, one-third is who I’m with and one-third is eating great food.”
Dobbs says he inherited his dad’s appreciation of diner breakfasts. “I don’t usually go for the hamburger. I go for the bacon and eggs and home fries or the stack of pancakes.”
He insists: “The cooking should take place in front of you, not in some secret back room. That’s the magic of being in a traditional American diner.”
And that’s one reason why you won’t ever see Dobbs at a McDonald’s or other food chain. “I never liked chains. I’ve always liked the mom-and-pop feel of a local diner, where you get to know the people.”
Although Dobbs says the traditional diner at times has been “besieged by McDonald’s, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken,” he adds there has been “a little bit of a rebirth” because there are still enough people who appreciate that mom-and-pop quality. He likes to say they offer “a homey quality that never goes out of style.”
Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.