Thursday, October 11, 2001

Legions of fans keep diners from going stale

Built like tanks, they're easily moved

By David B. Caruso
The Associated Press

        PHILADELPHIA — Tucker Curtin always wanted to own a 24-hour diner. So when he heard that one was going to be demolished in suburban Philadelphia, he bought it, put it up on a trailer and started lugging it home to New York.

        His restaurant wasn't the only diner on the move this week. In South Burlington, Vt., workers pulled the Cosmos Diner off its foundation and trucked it to a warehouse to be refurbished.

        Recently, scores of classic diners have hit the road as nostalgia for 1950s Americana fuels a renewed love for the prefabricated structures with bolted-down stools.

        “This will be a real labor of love,” said Mr. Curtin, who plans to spend $150,000 to renovate his vintage 1952 Mountain View diner, which he hopes to open in Buffalo, N.Y., as Marge's Main Line Diner.

        The classic diners were built from steel with furniture bolted in place so they could be rolled onto trucks or trains and moved if business was bad.

        “You just put them on a trailer and drive. They are built like a tank,” said Daniel Zilka, curator of the American Diner Museum in Providence, R.I.

        At the height of their popularity there were 5,000 to 6,000 diners in the United States, said Mr. Zilka. Now there are about 2,400, many struggling against fast-food chains.

        Debates rage over how to define a diner: Purists permit only a movable restaurant in the shape of a railroad car, while others allow storefront restaurants and freestanding buildings.

        Diner City, an online guide, lists diners of all variety in 39 states. Building a new one can cost as much as $1 million, but moving an old one can be dirt cheap. “I had a call recently from Lisbon, Portugal, from a guy looking to buy a diner,” Mr. Zilka said. “There are three or four that have been shipped to Germany. There was one in Paris, France, that left from Iowa. There are now two in Moscow.”

        Once it opens, Mr. Curtin's new diner will run 24 hours a day, “just like a diner should,” he said.

        “The folks who used to own the diner gave us some pictures of the interior taken in the 1950s,” he said. “We'll try to get as close as possible.”

        He'll also try to match the cuisine: breakfast, burgers, fries and sliders — hot dogs slathered with homemade chili sauce.

        “It is going to take a tremendous amount of work to make it what it once was,” he said.


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