When Jimmy Conway (Robert DeNiro) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) need a secure location to meet for an important conversation, they chose, as Henry says in his narration, a “crowded place both of us knew.” Of course, this just so happens to be a diner. In countless films, diners serve as safe spaces for characters to meet up and discuss sensitive information and hatch various illicit schemes, even if they involve murder. This scene, in which Jimmy first asks Henry to do a hit job, was filmed at the Clinton Diner on Maspeth Avenue in Queens. Earlier in the film, Henry and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) meet in front of the Airline Diner near the ‘Idlewood Airport.” Though the diner, located on Astoria Avenue at 70th in Queens, has since been absorbed by the Jackson Hole chain, it thankfully still retains the classic neon sign and its original pink and chrome interior.
Coffee, cigarettes, and a comfy, casual diner. In 2003, Jim Jarmusch decided to make an entire film out of the combination. Consisting of 17 short, black-and-white vignettes shot over the course of eighteen years, Coffee and Cigarettes is a retro ode to the conversations that unfold among people as they sit together and indulge in some of their favorite addictions. The cast is basically a long list of cool, famous people, including Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Steve Coogan, Alfred Molina, Jack and Meg White, Cate Blanchet, RZA and GZA from the Wootang Clan, and Bill Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin’-ass Murray, but the real scene stealers are Jarmusch’s beautiful shots of steaming mugs of black coffee and slightly rumpled packs of cigarettes. Coffee and Cigarettes definitely isn’t for everyone. It can feel boring, overly talky, and excessively hip, but for any film lover who thinks diners are pure American cinema at its finest, it’s definitely worth a watch, just not if you are trying to kick a caffeine or nicotine habit.
Crazily enough, when Marty hops back in the DeLorean for the Back to the Future sequel, he travels to the year 2015. While the film got some stuff about the future right, such as flat screen TVs, voice activated technology, and a video-chat system akin to Skype, society still has a long way to go before achieving some of its other predictions. The 2015 of 1989 features flying cars, hover boards, the Black & Decker Food Hydrator, and auto-fitting clothing that basically looks like something out of bad ’80s music video. In the fictional 2015, Lou’s Cafe has turned into a retro 1980s diner where patrons ride stationary bikes while eating their meal, watch Michael Jackson interviews on individual television sets, play old arcade style video games (with their hands!), and drink Pepsi’s that rise up out of the counter. If Back to the Future 2 got one thing correct, it is that nostalgia is a powerful and omnipresent force. The desire for the retro will always be “in” and the past will always look better and more romantic than the present, shoulder pads and velour included.
We may all want to pump the DeLorean up to 1.21 gigawatts and return to a classic ‘50s diner for 25-cent hamburgers and 15-cent milkshakes, but unfortunately, we only get to watch Marty McFly do it in Back to the Future while we sit here in the future drinking our Tabs and Pepsi Frees. Shortly upon his arrival at the Hill Valley of 1955, Marty McFly stumbles into Lou’s Café where he encounters his stuttering teenage father being bullied by Biff and his cronies. With its pastel green walls, black and white checkered floors, and employees in crisp white uniforms, Lou’s is as pure of a mid-century American diner as you’re going to get, mostly because it’s fake. The scene in Lou’s was filmed on a set and no amount of plutonium will allow us to visit it in real life.
The Big Lebowski’s most memorable scenes may be set in the Hollywood Star Bowling Alley in East Hollywood (now demolished), but there are several amusing moments set in diners as well. When Walter and the Dude debate whether or not the infamous toe indeed belongs to Bunny, they do so over coffee at Johnies Coffee Shop and Restaurant, located at 610 Wilshire Boulevard in midtown. Walter’s language eventually becomes too profane for the respectable “family restaurant,” but he insists on staying put to uphold his first amendment rights and finish his coffee. Unfortunately, Johnie’s is now used solely as a filming location and visitors can’t go there to test the limits of prior restraint like Walter, but they can see it again in films like Reservoir Dogs and American History X. Later on in the film, the German nihilists indulge in the classic American fare of pancakes and pigs in a blanket at Dinah’s Family Restaurant. Located at 6521 Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City, the delightfully retro Dinah’s is thankfully still open for business and proudly serving up pancakes everyday.
From its opening scene, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet works to uncover the dark, disturbing world teeming beneath the cheery surface of American suburbia. It makes sense that Lynch would chose the all-American diner as the meeting point where Jeffrey and Sandy hatch a plan to unearth Lumbertown’s dirty secrets. After Jeffrey tells Sandy his scheme to break into Dorothy Vallens’ apartment, she responds by saying, “You can tell me any plan you want, but its not going any further than this diner.” Of course, if this were true, we wouldn’t have a movie. At the time of filming, “Arlene’s Restaurant” was actually the New Hanover Human Resources office but now, you can grab a coffee at Port City Java at 402 Chestnut Street in Wilmington, North Carolina. David Lynch might be a bit obsessed with diners, as they play prominent roles in Mulholland Drive and the television show Twin Peaks.
Taxi Driver provides one of the most indelible portraits of the decadence and decay of New York City in the 1970s. After long nights of driving through Manhattan, disgusted by the junkies, pimps, prostitutes, and criminals that line the decrepit streets, Travis Bickle often meets up with his fellow cabbies at an all-night coffee shop and diner. It is here that the men discuss the shocking rise in violence of the city and debate whether or not is appropriate to arm themselves while Travis stares deeply into his fizzing glass of seltzer. The Belmore Cafeteria on Park Avenue and 28th where the scene was filmed was once a hotspot for New York’s real life taxi drivers, but as the story so often goes, it has since been bulldozed. Travis goes to a diner two other times in the film, first to take Betsy on a date and then later to convince Iris to leave prostitution behind over a midday snack of orange juice and peanut butter and jelly.
The 1985 dark comedy film After Hours is usually classified as minor Scorsese. Though it might not be as groundbreaking or memorable as Scorsese’s previous 10 years of filmmaking, After Hours has gained respect and cult-status over the years and, along with its predecessor, King of Comedy, is a much-watch for any film buff. After the reserved, yuppie word processer Paul Hackett (played by Griffin Dune) finds himself stranded and penniless in SoHo, he spends a surreal night roaming haplessly through the streets of lower Manhattan in search of safe haven. His nocturnal odyssey takes him to a sculptor’s loft, a dingy pub, a punk nightclub, and of course, a 24-hour diner. With its elongated, stainless steel exterior, neon signage, formica tables, and red leather seating, the diner is as classic as any you’ll find in New York City. Paul returns to the River Diner at 452 11th Avenue several times throughout the evening but unfortunately, the diner was recently demolished and we can no longer do the same.
Three of the most iconic scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s seminal masterpiece Pulp Fiction take place in diners. The most memorable, of course, is Jack Rabbit Slims, the 50s-style diner where Vince and Mia dance the twist. Described by Vince as “a wax museum with a pulse,” Jack Rabbit Slims is a delightfully campy distillation of mid-century American memorabilia. The waiter staff dress up like famous icons from the era, including Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, and James Dean, the booths are fashioned out of classic cars, and everyone drinks overpriced milkshakes and vanilla cokes. It is a blown-up version of quintessential American diner, and it is, alas, totally fake. The largest chunk of the film’s budget-$150,00-went to crafting the set, most of which was filmed at a vast Culver City warehouse.
However, movie pilgrims and Tarantino worshipers can visit the other famous diner that bookends the film, the Hawthorne Grill, located on 37th and Hawthorne in Los Angeles. In the opening scene, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny discuss the genius of choosing to rob a restaurant instead of a bank or liquor store, comfortable in the knowledge that they will catch patrons and employees alike “with their pants down.” In the end, it is Pumpkin and Honey Bunny who end up with their pants down when Vince and Jules happen to be eating at the diner at the exact same time. Jules quotes the bible and allows the couple to leave, albeit penniless, before he and Vince exit the diner to the tune of “Surf Rider” by the Lively Ones. The Hawthorne Grill was selected for its Googie Architecture, a style of futurist design that grew up out of California in the 1940s. Highly influenced by the Space Age and the growth of car culture, Googie architecture features slanted or curving roofs, geometric shapes, and the ultra modern use of steel, iron, and neon. Because Googie architecture is most strongly reflected in diners, coffeehouses, gas stations, and motels, it is frequently featured in classic road films and LA neo-noirs.