IN PRAISE OF DINER COFFEE

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I have a confession to make: I love diner coffee.

Wait, don’t go – let me explain. Of course, diner coffee isn’t generally very good. You might get lucky and not be served something burnt and undrinkable. You can add cream and sugar, and that usually helps cut the bitterness somewhat. At best, it might taste like a hot brown memory of how coffee should taste. And herein lies the point.

Taste is as much linked to smell, mood and memory as to the physical properties of a substance interacting with tastebuds. The joy of diner coffee, for me, is more abstract than merely the hot liquid sitting in front of me. It’s the ambiance, the atmosphere, the feeling of the classic diner mug in your hands on a cold winter morning. It’s the fact that your cup will never empty, thanks to almost constant refills. It’s about the diner interior, the people watching, the smells and sights. It’s a memory.

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The fascination with diners has a long history. Usually viewed as an optimistic central tenet of Americana, diner nostalgia is rooted in the modern mythologizing of the 1950s, a time when the American middle class was great and life was wonderful. Norman Rockwell’s paintings embodied this rosy-eyed reminiscence, but Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks gave another perspective, of diners as lonely places populated by society’s castoffs.

Personally, I much prefer this second viewpoint. For me, diners are indicative of the loneliness of traveling, especially in America. Coming from Britain, the vast distances between towns always staggers me. Highways can go on for thousands of miles, with very little to see en route. The diner, then, is a stopgap, a place to rest and recuperate – to sit with a coffee and gather the pieces of yourself – before continuing on your absurdly long journey. The ever-present truckers, usually alone, usually silent, expand this loneliness. Diner coffee enables and accentuates this wistful contemplation.

The taste of diner coffee is worth briefly musing on. As stated before, it’s never going to be good quality. It’s a cheap way to get customers in the door, and free refills aren’t exactly a money-spinner. But on the other hand, diner coffee’s weakness is also its charm; cup after cup of the stuff can be swallowed with little to no caffeine buzz. Cut with cream – or the facsimile that passes for cream in most diners –  it has a distinctive, not always completely unpleasant, coffee taste. The heat, too, rising off the cup like mist, plays its part.

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There’s also the movie influence. As I’ve written before, diner-set scenes are popular with filmmakers due to their simplicity, their ubiquity and their relative inexpensiveness – compare the cost of renting a diner for a shoot with renting a five-star restaurant. Aside from that, they emit a certain neon charm that fits with a certain kind of movie (usually featuring a grizzled anti-hero solemnly stirring a cup of coffee). My favourite part of every movie scene set in a diner is the end, when the main character gets up to leave, fishes around in a pocket, pulls out whatever loose change is in there and tosses it on the counter before walking out. Is it enough? Do they care? What happens when the server goes to collect the payment and finds out that it’s three copper pennies and a button? These questions are never answered.

Then there’s the ritual aspect to diner coffee: you enter, pick your seat (a booth, or if you’re really brave you can find a seat at the counter amongst the old-timers and truck drivers). The server will bring you a mug, and fill it with steaming hot coffee from one of those classic glass carafes that never seem to run dry. You open one of the little cream containers and pour it in, watching the white swirl into the black. You add another. And then probably another. Maybe sugar, if it’s particularly bitter. And then you sit, hands cupped around the mug, absorbing the heat, and look around the diner.

This scenario repeats itself in every diner, no matter where you are (all diners are, at their core, identical). The same lighting, the same furniture, the same coffee. And I love it. It makes me feel like I’m part of America, even though I have a funny accent. You can be anonymous, sit for hours and people-watch, and your cup of coffee will never empty.