Few things are more American than a classic diner breakfast. Sunny-side eggs, crispy potatoes, pancakes, a pair of triangular toasts, a few sausage links or strips of bacon — all washed down with a cup (or two) of coffee. Stumble into any diner and it’ll be on the menu, sure as there’ll be a ponytailed-waitress with a name tag and pencil behind her ear.
But where did this iconic morning assembly come from? Well, it all began in the Northeast with the very first version of food trucks: Meals were being sold from horse-drawn wagons as early as 1872.
“The birth of the business was really to accommodate a need for some food service after restaurants had closed,” said Richard Gutman, director of the Culinary Arts Museum at Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales University, which lays claim to an extensive diner exhibit. Those first carts served prepared or easy-to-assemble items like sandwiches, coffee and cigars to late workers. No breakfast was shelled out on in the early days, since there was no room to do any real cooking inside the cramped wagons.
Around 1890, some carts added small cooking stoves, and expanded their limited menu to chowders and the occasional boiled eggs. Hot food changed the game, and the service soon outgrew the wagon.
“Owners moved off the streets and onto little parcels of land, and they began building ones that people could come inside,” said Gutman.
A proper kitchen and a permanent location turned diners from a nighttime business into an all-day (and sometimes all-night) affair. The additional room and griddle space also meant cooks could whip up eggs any way patrons desired. This quickly became a staple of the diner menu, and all-day breakfast soon followed.
“All-day breakfast evolved from the fact that they were originally serving lunches in the middle of the night, so anything goes,” Gutman explained. “There’s something about the idea of eggs or waffles or pancakes for dinner (or any meal) that’s very appealing.”
Although eggs and coffee have always been mainstays of the diner breakfast, the menu has evolved over the years. Early offerings were very basic: a few kinds of eggs, toast and coffee cost you a quarter. By the 1920s, diners started cooking up specials called “club breakfasts.” A precursor to blue plate specials, these were special dishes for an affordable price. Omelettes caught on, and you could often order one even at a diner not offering all-day breakfast.
Gutman believes that breakfast sweets like pancakes and waffles weren’t commonplace until “they started to expand the menu a little more,” giving diners the often overwhelming marathon dish listings they have now.
Pulling a few menus from his museum’s extensive collection, Gutman pointed at one from from The Diner in Riverside, California, which offered 200 listed items. Breakfast seemed to be offered all day, and included 14 basic egg dishes, various specials, as well as club breakfasts. A special cost 60¢ and came with your choice of fruit or sauerkraut juice (mmmm), fresh fruit like figs, and either a breakfast steak like tenderloin or an omelette (including a “fresh fruit omelette”). Waffles with strawberries and whipped cream were also available.
Most diners served this more typical fare (with exception of sauerkraut juice), while others put their own spin on the classics — similar to the diner landscape today. For example, Uncle Bob’s Diner in Flint, Michigan served kippered herring or lox and onions with scrambled eggs, along with a menu of 24 different desserts daily.
“Depending on the adventurousness and the skills of the person cooking, and what people like to eat, the diner is a place that’s a chameleon,” Gutman said. “You can do whatever you want in there, as long as it doesn’t cost too much.”