At chef Patrick Acuña’s diner, patrons sit elbow-to-elbow on stools along the bright-red Formica bar. While the setup is familiar, the menu pushes the boundaries of diner food — serving fried chicken in a sushi roll.
Roll On Sushi Diner is doing its part to keep Austin, Texas, weird and has won over locals since opening in 2011. It’s just one example of the evolution of the diner, which began as a prefab stainless-steel dining car (circa 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island) serving burgers and blue-plate specials and was immortalized by painter Edward Hopper as a late-night refuge.
These days, the diner is going gourmet, as critically acclaimed chefs spice up classic American dishes with Asian, Mexican, and other artisanal flavors.
An anything-goes attitude, and 24/7 service, draws folks out of bars and into the leather booths of the Bowery Diner on New York’s Lower East Side. The signature burger comes with pastrami that’s brined and smoked in house. Purists will balk at some of these fancy touches and the higher-than-Denny’s prices.
But a round of the Bowery Diner’s habit-forming milk shakes — in creative flavors like cheesecake and lemon meringue, spiked, and topped with cream — should brighten the mood.
All quibbling aside, everyone loves a good diner, whether greasy spoon or gourmet. Here are our picks for the coolest old-meets-new diners.
Skillet Diner, Seattle, Washington
CIA-schooled chef Josh Henderson, of Seattle’s Skillet Street Food Airstream trailers, recently launched this brick-and-mortar restaurant with swivel counter stools and green vinyl booths. While the chalkboard specials change daily, you can count on an order of cornmeal waffles with maple-braised pork belly and fried eggs any day or night.
Don’t miss: “Henderson’s Skillet Cookbook: A Street Food Manifesto” (Sasquatch Books) and a jar of his beloved bacon jam on the way out.
Bowery Diner, New York City, New York
Chef Mathieu Palombino — mastermind of the city’s gourmet Motorino pizzerias — has launched this haute-retro version on the Lower East Side, next door to the New Museum. It’s open 24/7, in true diner style, and draws a late-night crowd spilling out of local bars and into the burgundy leather booths surrounded by mirrored stainless-steel walls.
The varied menu leans nostalgic with dishes like Reuben sandwiches, twice-baked mac ‘n’ cheese, and a double-patty burger with béarnaise sauce.
Don’t miss: Milk shakes topped with whipped cream that come spiked and in creative flavors; New York cheesecake is especially appropriate.
Au Cheval, Chicago, Illinois
You might call Au Cheval a “finer diner,” given its tufted leather booths, milk-glass pendant lighting fixtures, long zinc bar, and root beer (plus craft brews) on tap. Since it opened in the up-and-coming West Loop district in February 2012, chef Brendan Sodikoff has been dishing out a global mishmash of comfort foods.
To wit: his General Tso’s chicken is honey-fried with sesame, chile, and cilantro, while an entire menu section is devoted to dishes with eggs, such as crispy frites with garlic aioli and Mornay sauce and Mexican-style chilaquiles, available only after midnight. After all, the restaurant’s name comes from the culinary slang for adding a fried one (literally, “on horseback”).
Don’t miss: A reinvented bologna sandwich, with house-made mortadella, sharp American cheese, Dijon mayo, and pickles on a toasted brioche bun — fried egg optional.
Dock & Roll Diner, Austin, Texas
Three twentysomethings brought the diner back to its mobile roots in Summer 2011 with the opening of this retrofitted 1957 Airstream Flying Cloud “food trailer.” They dish out globally inspired sandwiches — lobster rolls, banh mi, po’ boys — with “Po-taters” and other old-school sides out of a lot in South Austin.
Expect picnic benches in lieu of counter service; the trailer is only 19 feet long. They plan to open a second location in the suburb of Lakeway in late 2012, compete with a few seats inside.
Don’t miss: The Real B.L.T., with chicken fried bacon, lobster, and tomato.
Fremont Diner, Sonoma, California
With its reclaimed-wood bar, vintage metal stools, and screened-in wraparound porch, The Fremont (open only for breakfast and lunch) adds retro style to the diner concept. Owner and pit master Chad Harris takes a Slow Food approach, sourcing ingredients from local farms — including the one out back — for southern-inspired fare like shrimp and grits with house-made sausages and poached eggs, or smoked Marin County whole-hog sandwiches.
Don’t miss: A piece of fried pie and a glass of white from the surrounding vineyards.
Café de La Esquina at Wythe Diner, Brooklyn, New York
The team behind SoHo’s La Esquina — the cult-favorite taqueria and underground tequila bar in an old corner deli — launched its latest hot spot within a formerly defunct Williamsburg diner. Original vinyl-topped bar stools and leather banquettes date back to the 1950s, while the upscale Mexican street food (like scallops with coconut horchata and fried almonds, or Mexican truffle quesadillas with Oaxacan queso and roasted corn) bring the setting up to date.
Don’t miss: Tacos, tortas, and house-made cocktails like the blood-orange margarita in the outdoor garden.
Roll On Sushi Diner, Austin, Texas
This diner-slash-sushi-joint, from brothers Chip and Chad Reed, is all about “counter culture.” Grab a stool at the bright-red Formica bar that wraps around the central kitchen, where you can witness chef Patrick Acuña busy at work.
The menu does its part to Keep Austin Weird with the likes of a chicken fried steak Cholesta Roll. Traditionalists, fear not — there’s also a list of American-style favorites, California rolls and house-made ramen among them.
Don’t miss: Tempura-fried ice cream for dessert.
Hopscotch, Oakland, California
New to Oakland’s burgeoning Uptown District, Hopscotch reinterprets classic American dishes using East Bay ingredients and a Japanese touch courtesy of chef and co-owner Kyle Itani (of Yoshi’s in San Francisco and New York’s The Meatball Shop). On the menu: a braised pork belly hash with slow-cooked onsen eggs and a yuzu meringue pie to be washed down with local beers, wines, and small-batch spirits.
As for the interiors, between the Midcentury Modern Carrara marble bar and the checkerboard cork floors, you’ll feel like you’re eating in a diner circa 1950.
Don’t miss: Duck-fat potato chips with miso dip.
M. Wells Dinette, Queens, New York
When chef Hugue Dufour (of Montreal’s famed Au Pied de Cochon) and his wife, Sarah Obraitis, opened M. Wells in July 2010, they turned a forgotten 1950s dining car into a veritable pilgrimage for foodies — until lease issues forced its close. The diner reopens in late summer 2012 as a cafeteria-style “dinette” with metal trays and bento boxes inside MoMA PS1.
The rotating menu is as diverse as the original, featuring everything from oatmeal with foie gras to spaghetti and meatballs served in a can, and all concocted in the open kitchen, framed by cabinets of curiosities from the former diner and beyond.
Don’t miss: The Russian Breakfast (a blini crêpe with hard-boiled eggs, smoked sturgeon, pickled vegetables, crème fraîche, and chive oil), an old M. Wells favorite.
Little Goat, Chicago, Illinois
Top Chef season-four winner Stephanie Izard is prepping to open a retro diner in October 2012 next to her critically acclaimed Girl & the Goat in the West Loop. She promises blue-plate specials, farm-fresh patty melts, and breakfast inspired by snacks from around the world — and available all day. But the ultimate indulgence will be an order of pulled-pork sandwiched between pork-fat donuts.
Don’t miss: Fresh-baked bread from the attached bakeshop and, for the inspired, cooking classes in an upstairs private room.