Documenting Diners: One Couple’s Perspective

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Documenting Diners: One Couple’s Perspective

Golden stacks of pancakes, plates of fries and towering BLTs—hungry yet? Ever since the first diner was constructed in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872, Americans have flocked to these establishments in search of warm food, cold milkshakes and familiar faces.

For Tom Smith, growing up in the NYC metro area led to a life revolving around diners, spending weekend mornings or late afternoons perusing those seemingly endless menus. Growing up on Long Island, Alecia Eberhardt also found a love for diners early on. And eventually, the two began dating with diners linking them together, even acting as the backdrop for many of their early dates. As his appreciation for diners grew, Smith founded Diner Porn in 2013. “At first, it was simply a photo blog, a way for Tom to keep creative while living in the suburbs and to capture the culture that surrounded him,” Eberhardt explained. “But after we started to get more “serious” (we’re married now!) I began to get involved by writing short vignettes to accompany his photos, and that’s how it became what Diner Porn is today.”

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Aside from documenting various diners, the duo own Eberhardt Smith, a small creative media business, with Smith acting as the visual media director and Eberhardt as the content director. “Diner Porn is absolutely an extension of our professional work, but it’s a passion project—it’s an opportunity to flex our creative muscles by doing photography and writing that’s more editorial than what we usually do for clients,” Eberhardt said. It certainly shows, as each diner description captures the essence and personality of each establishment, making a point to showcase their joyful-looking staff through Smith’s photographs.

The pair have taken Diner Porn all over the Eastern United States (with a pinch or two of the Midwest), and even went international—they made a stop at Prikid Coffee Shop in Reykjavik, Iceland. However, being Kingston, N.Y. based has led the two to embrace the diners of the Hudson Valley. With posts leading up and down the Hudson River, the two have noticed a lot about the differences between diners and their locations. Eberhardt said, “The classic diner that we think of—often mobile “railcar” style, chrome-walled places with griddles in the front of the house—is very much a Northeast development. The majority of pre-fab diners in the United States were manufactured in New Jersey and moved along major highways.” Different areas have proved to have special diner characteristics: “There are just regionalisms. In the South, sweet tea is much more popular than coffee, diners are typically only open from 6am-3pm or so, and fried catfish is a popular menu item.”

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There’s a distinct décor difference between a railcar diner and a 60s style eatery (think The Double R, for example). So, for Eberhardt and Smith, narrowing down what would make their list came down to a matter of atmosphere. “I think one of the most interesting questions we’ve had to tackle is the simple ‘is it a diner/isn’t it a diner” question. Some diners call themselves “café” or “restaurant,” but they have all the markers of diner design and history: booths, counter with stools, huge menus, classic diner grub like breakfast all day and griddle options—it’s not about the name, it’s more about the ‘vibe,’” Eberhardt explained.

Diner Porn is almost a chronicle of the changes amongst establishments, as they document the “diner capital” New Jersey, and showcase diners with a twist. Eberhardt added, “Some have all the markers, like Grazin’ in Hudson, N.Y. which is a classic chrome railcar diner from the ‘30s, but it doesn’t have that vibe—Grazin’ is actually a locally sourced gastropub, if you look at the menu and you visit and you experience what it’s like there. So in the years since diners first
became popular in the early to mid 1900s, what constitutes a diner has changed. Often, you walk in, and you just know—this is a diner.” I was eager to know what the pair’s top picks were, so Eberhardt narrowed it down to three: “Dor-Stop in Pittsburgh—for its un-freaking-believable hotcakes, Park West in Little Falls, N.J (Smith’s childhood diner) and 7th Avenue Donuts and Diner in Park Slope.” Eberhardt noted that 7 th Avenue’s strawberry milkshake was the “photo that helped Diner Porn ‘blow up.’” Of course, with their diner adventures spreading so far, Eberhardt added some honorable mentions: Big Time Diner in Mobile, Ala., Courtesy Diner in St. Louis, Mo., Washington Square Diner in NYC and the Phoenicia Diner in Phoenicia, N.Y.

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Eberhardt noted that she and Smith have almost polar opposite tastes in food—which must make menu sampling not so intimidating after all. “One of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten was the fried catfish at Mobile, Ala.’s’s Big Time Diner. And of course, French fries with everything,” Eberhardt said. Speaking for Smith, she continued, “Tom is much more of an old soul when it comes to diner ordering. At our local diners, he usually gets spanakopita (spinach pie) or the fish dinner special… Once he ate the 13-ounce “jumbo” burger from the Cooperstown Diner and afterward he felt like he was so full he might die, but he was okay with it. Another favorite was the apple and cheddar omelette from Lou Mitchell’s in Chicago.” While they might not always agree on their entrée choice, they do agree on two things: “Coffee, coffee, and more coffee, and the apple cinnamon hotcakes from Dor-Stop, which were literally the best thing we ever ate,”Eberhardt added.

For now, Eberhardt and Smith are continuing their coffee consumption and local diner showcasing. Eberhardt’s thoughtful blurbs about each diner adds a dash of nostalgia, as locals and workers reflect on their experiences at the establishments. The couple is currently working towards publishing their adventures in a book. Eberhardt added, “The book is based on last year’s east coast-midwest road trip, which we funded via a Kickstarter campaign. It’s about 80 percent done, and we anticipate printing it really soon. We’re also working with an agent, so the idea is that—after we self-publish this first edition for our amazing campaign backers and all the diners that welcomed us—we’ll be able to publish an expanded edition with a major publisher. Seeing Diner Porn on the shelves at our local bookstore would be an absolute dream come true.” So, next time you’re hankering for some delectable hotcakes, turn to Diner Porn for craving-inducing photographs, heartwarming stories and satisfied stomachs.