Written By: Bill Syken
Where exactly is the diner in these photos?
At this juncture, the answer is not clear. But that’s okay because, wherever it is, odds are, you’ve been there.
The diner is a place of welcome—to families, friends, and loners. In our culture it has been home to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the gang from Seinfeld, and of course the guys in the movie Diner. While the phenomenon of the diner can feel like pure Americana, the concept translates globally. In the recent Netflix series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories the food is different, but the spirit is the same.
While the coffeehouse and the bar offer a variation on these comforts, the diner stands out because it’s as welcoming to kids as it is to adults, and because its charms are available any time of day (or night).
The photos taken by John Loengard in 1962 capture all this appeal. Loengard was a giant on the LIFE staff, and noted chronicler of such figures as The Beatles and Georgia O’Keeffe. Here he cast his eye on a subject that, while more humble, is every bit as enduring.
The dinner is part of a filling station, and the sign out front promotes two food item: burgers and “bar-b-q burgers.” And Pepsi. What’s telling about these diner photos is how little attention is paid to the food. In one photo a chef-waitress adds French fries onto plates with burgers on them. But the food, while essential to the diner experience, is also beside the point.
Loengard’s lens drinks in all the details. The kid draining his drinking glass. The guys leaning into each other, confiding either their innermost thoughts or their prediction for the game. The women sharing a laugh, while a notice about a public sale sits in front of them. The restless kids moving from booth to counter.
Then there’s the young man carefully picking out songs on a juke box. Because of course this small country diner has a juke box.
Looking at these pictures can make a person hungry, especially these days—and not just for fries.