Tuesday 3 March 2020

Diners, Restaurants, Automats and Flats

I've been asked (in this twittering world), about the difference between diners and restaurants. The distinction is simple, diners come from trains.

Originally, in 1890, the diner was the carriage of a railway train where food was served. It was what we would now probably call the dining car (that's what Johnny Cash called it in Folsom Prison Blues), or in Britain the buffet car (because you're buffeted by nastiness and expense). The way that the old-style dining car worked was that there was a counter down one side of the carriage, behind which was a grill etc; on the other side there were tables for the passengers to sit at and munch.

This proved an important point: it proved that it was possible to make a restaurant so thin that it could be transported by rail, or even by road. This meant that diner-like restaurants could be prefabricated* and then driven to wherever they were needed. As diners are mainly needed beside roads to serve hungry motorists, this led to a lot of business and a lot of burgers.

The original diners, therefore, were long and thin and looked rather like railway carriages, because they were built to be transported by road. Here's a picture of a typical diner from 1941:

Diners could be dumped anywhere. By coincidence I was reading a James Thurber short story the other day that has a husband and wife driving along and arguing about which diner to stop at:

'I think I know the one you mean,' she said, after a moment. 'It's right in the town and it sits at an angle from the road. They're never so good, for some reason.'

The husband explodes in angry hunger. She continues:

'I've noticed the ones that sit at an angle. They're cheaper, because they fitted them into funny little pieces of ground. The big ones parallel to the road are best.'

And she was probably right.

The diner is therefore a transportable form of the restaurant. A restaurant restores you. That's because it sells restoratives. It all derives from soup and Parisian law.

There was a Frenchman called Boulanger and in 1765 he opened a little place beside the Louvre that sold soup. The soup was of the bouillon style that we would normally call consommé, but the standard French term of the time was to call it a restorative or restaurant. Boulanger even put up a sign in the window saying:

Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego vos restaurabo

Which is a sort of parody of the Sermon on the Mount. It means Come to me all whose stomachs are distressed, and I will restore you.

So far, so very normal. What was odd about all this was simply that Boulanger also served leg of lamb, and that was illegal. Only members of the caterers' guild were allowed to serve cooked solids, it seems, so the caterers' guild sued Boulanger.

To everybody's surprise, they lost. I don't know the reason. I know nothing of Parisian bylaws of the C18th and I'm not about to start studying them. As far as I can tell, though, this created a legal precedent for a new kind of eating establishment outside of guild control. These new establishments became known as restaurants.

Finally, as this post has been going on a long while now, there's the automat. I never realised that an automat was a kind of American restaurant until I watched the film Easy Living recently. Essentially, an automat was a self-service place. There were lots of meals but they were kept behind glass in little boxes. You had to insert some coins to open the window. Then you took your food to the table to eat. Here's one of the automat scenes from Easy Living:

It was the cheap and cheerful place for a hard-up New York girl to go and get a bite to eat. And that goes to explain the line in Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend

A kiss may be grand but it won't pay the rental
On your humble flat, or help you at the automat
Men grow cold as girls grow old
And we all lose our charms in the end
But square cut or pear shaped
These rocks don't lose their shape
Diamonds are a girl's best friend.

A single line therefore contains an incomprehensible Americanism - automat - and a Britishism - humble flat - where the Americans would usually say apartment. That's probably because the song was co-written by Leo Robin (American) and Jule Styne (British).

Mind you, the fully British Flanders and Swann wrote the lines:

When they whispered Napoleon paid Josephine's rent
"That's nonsense," said Bonaparte.
"She lives on her own, apart.
In her own apart-

*Like a sprout.

P.S. The ever-excellent 99% Invisible did an episode on automats. You can read or hear it here.

P.P.S. I thoroughly recommend Easy Living, or any film with Carole Lombard. My Man Godfrey is the best, but Easy Living, it seems, is on Youtube.

P.P.P.S. I wouldn't normally recommend that, but you can't buy the DVD for some reason.

P.P.P.P.S. The Thurber story, since you ask, was called A Couple of Hamburgers.


  1. There has to be more to the story of the restaurateur called Boulanger. He must have missed his nominative destiny by a whisker when he didn't become a baker instead.

  2. I remember when I did inter-railing around France in the 90s that there were automat-style restaurants there, too. I liked it. What you see is what you get.

  3. But the word 'bouillon' is still used for some traditional Paris restaurants. There are just a few left.

  4. The date for the original restaurants seems to chime in with what I think I read or heard (on the radio, probably) some years ago- that many of them came into existence around 1789 because the chefs had lost their jobs in aristocratic households as a result of their erstwhile bosses losing their heads, and needed to find a new way to earn a living.