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What is the difference?

  • m

I was wondering if my home town had an authentic diner...so this discussion began about what a diner is. Is a coffee shop the same? What makes a diner?

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  1. I'm sure someone can do a better job than I, but this is what I think.

    Diner: Counter service, endless coffee/soda, breakfast all day, simple home-y dishes. Doesn't need to be 24hrs but that definitely cements its status as a diner.

    Coffee shop: Many different varieties of coffee, pay per cup, pastries, music (optional).

    Both: Lonely people reading all day.

    1. Diner: Eggs. Matronly waitresses asking, "What'll it be hon?"

      Coffee Shop: Muffins and scones. College-age staff mumbling stuff.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Panini Guy

        I think that's a 'new age' definition of coffee shop. I still think of a coffee shop as more of a pared down diner.

        1. re: jeanmarieok

          Yes. A coffee shop is not a Starbucks; it's a Denny's-esque place, usually open 24 hours, like the ones you find in most every casino.

          1. re: jeanmarieok

            Grew up in New England. We had diners (90% Greek-owned it seemed), donut shops and luncheon counters (which also served breakfast). The edges of those blurred, but there was no such animal as a coffee shop that wasn't built around an espresso machine.

            1. re: Panini Guy

              What is now called a coffee shop with an espresso machine has it's roots as a coffee house. Back when there were coffee houses, a coffee shop was more similar to a diner.

          2. re: Panini Guy

            That's a coffee *house* not a coffee *shop* -- not the same thing at all.

          3. See this thread from months ago and see if that helps:


            1. The old style coffee shop is very similar to a diner, IMHO. The difference may be as simple as diner is a standalone, pre-fab structure ala the great diners of the 20s-50s... coffee shop is embedded in a larger building or srtip of stores.

              1 Reply
              1. re: woodburner

                I like your definition, it's kind of what I was going for.

              2. Real Diners have menu's the size of Guttenberg Bibles...
                And have the ability to serve an open faced hot turkey sandwich at 10am...
                Or bacon and eggs at 2am...

                1 Reply
                1. re: Tay

                  I guess your idea of what a diner is depends on where you grew up! I always think of the diners that have the gigantic laminated menus with everything available all the time as "Jersey Diners". Being from New England, I think of a diner as a place way smaller, with simple food, and might not even be open for dinner (which is always too bad) like the Capitol Diner in Lynn, or Jiggers in RI. But I guess both types are basically diners, just from different eras.

                2. You can get pie with your coffee at a diner, but not at a coffee shop (not these days, anyway). People have forgotten the simple greatness of coffee and pie together. Screw biscotti!

                  1. You can follow this link to the "Diner Museum" website:

                    Diners are prefab buildings brought to a site, usually resembling railroad cars (dining cars).

                    Coffee shops in NY were always little restaurants (like the one they used in Seinfeld), then there are coffee bars ie. Charbucks.

                    Diners are great places to go at 3:00 in the morning for a good greasy (not mutually exclusive) burgers, coffee shops are great places to go for breakfast eggs, home fires and toast w/coffee for $1.50.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: jnk

                      I agree..wish we had something other than Denny's!

                    2. Weren't "diners" originally railroad cars, or maybe they were supposed to look like that? Anyway, I grew up in NYC and coffee shops were often called diners, luncheonettes, greasy spoons. Now when I go back to New York, I think of a diner as one of those free standing chrome places that have giant ten page laminated menus and humungous desserts and corn muffins. There's a bunch in the suburbs, one in Rockland County that I love (Airmont maybe?)

                      1. I was in a diner today. It did not look like a railroad car. But it did have windows all around and booths by the windows and tables in the middle and the kitchen in back. There were no counter and stools because that space was taken up by the pie and cooky and pastry cases. But I'm sure it was a diner. Because each booth had an updated juke box controller at the end of the table. Now that I think about it, that juke box controller may be the deciding factor between a diner and not.

                        1. The original "diners" were decommissioned dining cars. They had a hull that contained a compact, fully-equipped kitchen and seating for a couple dozen (at most) customers, all built onto a chassis that could be dragged around as part of a train. A number of companies took the idea to another level by building purpose-made prefabricated restaurants that could be delivered to an owner's location. But they still resembled railroad cars because they had to move by train or truck along a right-of-way. As a result, they are long and skinny, usually with a bar facing the kitchen and narrow booths opposite.

                          Although they're something of a curiosity here out west, there are tons of prefab diners that were sold as such to their original owners scattered up and down the east coast. The food they offer is anything but a unifying feature. While they typically offer full meals (as opposed to just burgers and/or sandwiches), the range of their offerings is staggering. Some have menus like telephone books; others can put their offerings on both sides of a laminated sheet of paper. Some offer well-prepared local food at a premium, while others are trying to undercut the local fast-food joint on price and quality. So IMHO, the architecture--not the menu--is what makes a place a diner.

                          Of course, the definition of a diner can't be that simple. When the owner of a successful prefab diner who can't seat all of his customers tacks on a dining room or four, does that make the place something other than a diner? Or what about the restaurant owners who commission site-built buildings that faithfully emulate the layout of a "true" diner? Can we really exclude them from dinerdom? The questions can get esoteric pretty quickly.

                          In my experience, coffee shops are what they have in California instead of diners. Space is not at a premium, and it costs way too much to drag a stainless steel capsule across the continent. So you get a different kind of restaurant. Lots of independent joints, but plenty of Sambo's (now Coco's), Eppie's, Lyon's, and (seriously) Denny's. The menu, the hours, and the clientele would qualify any of these places as diners. But there's a fundamental difference--the coffee shop is site-built (or incorporated into an existing structure), while the diner is self-contained and deposited on the site intact.

                          Does it really make a difference? Probably not, but it's fun to think about...

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            Agree with most of your comments, but unsure of the origins part up front.

                            Saw a show or something with lots of pics that discussed the birth of diners originating on the east coast as horse-drawn carts out of which the proprietor would sell coffee and sandwiches to factory workers. The carts got larger, until you had carts that could seat a handful of people inside. Then those got larger and were hauled to a permanent location and, voila (sp), you have the birth of the diner as a prefab restaurant sized so it could be hauled over road to the owner's location. Quite a few builders on the east coast originally. Lots still survive.

                            Check out the link: