Preston Strugess’ 1941 classic Sullivan’s Travels is a screw-ball comedy, a road film, and one of the greatest movies ever made about making movies. In it, the famous director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) disguises himself as a hobo and sets off on a cross country journey in pursuit of true suffering, something he believes is a requirement for creating an artistic masterpiece. Not far into his journey, he wanders into a roadside diner where he meets a beautiful nameless blonde played by Veronica Lake who is also trying to escape Hollywood, only this time as a failed actress. After ordering him ham and eggs and offering him cigarettes, the two get to talking. Unaware that she is chatting with a world-renowned director of comedies, she tells him, “The nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don’t have to laugh at his jokes.” Later on in the film, after a failed attempt to ride the rails together, the pair stops at another diner and out of the goodness of his heart, the man behind the counter offers the two famished travelers donuts for free.
No film better depicts a changing America than Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper’s seminal road film about a pair of counterculture “long-hairs” who ride their Harley Davidsons across the highways of America in search of true freedom. With a production history as outlandish and drug fueled as the journey depicted in the film itself, Easy Rider roared onto the screens in 1969 and ushered in a radical new era of American filmmaking. Easy Rider was one of the first films to portray the counterculture in all its glory, use a soundtrack consisting entirely of rock and roll hits, and feature rising star Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.
The travels of Wyatt (Peter Fonda), Billy (Dennis Hopper), and George Hanson (Nicholson) take them across the scenic byways of the American South and Southwest, stopping at gas stations, campsites, communes, hot springs, police stations, and diners along the way. When the three stop at a small café after a long day’s journey, they find themselves simultaneously harassed and seduced by the patrons inside. A police officer sitting at a nearby booth declares, “What the hell is this? Trouble makers?” while a group of young women giggle in titillation and discuss which of the men each of them likes best. As the three dirty hippies take their seats, the comments increase in both volume and severity. One man says, “I think we ought to put them in a cage and charge admission to see ‘um,” followed by another who remarks, “They look like a bunch of refugees from a guerilla love-in.” On top of it all, the waitress neglects to serve them any of the refreshing Coca-Cola and delicious handmade pies the sign outside advertises. Eventually, Wyatt, Billy, and George decide it is in their best interest to leave an establishment to which they are so obviously unwelcome. The diner scene might not be the most memorable in Easy Rider, but it perfectly encapsulates the cultural tension boiling between the established order and the longhaired, free-spirited hippie renegades who threatened to throw it over completely. The diner scene was filmed in the town of Morganza, Louisiana, about 50 miles outside the state capital of Baton Rouge. However, the diner, which was once located on Gayden Road, was torn down, leaving only an empty field and staircase behind.
Technically, the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally was filmed at a Jewish deli-Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street in New York City-but for our purposes, we’ll let it count. However, when Harry and Sally first embark on their long road trip from Chicago to New York at the beginning of the film, they stop at an actual diner for a late-night snack. This is where Harry explains to Sally that she could not have possibly had “hot sex” with a man named Sheldon and Sally gives the waitress incredibly detailed instructions for her order of a chef’s salad and apple pie. Though this scene definitely isn’t as memorable as the one at Katz’s, you can’t beat this diner’s pea-green leather booths and sassy waitress in a pink uniform.
Quentin Tarantino immortalized himself as a true auteur from the moment his first film, Reservoir Dogs, opens on a group of men chatting in a diner about the meaning of Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, asserts that the song is about an incredibly vulnerable girl who finally meets a nice fella, while Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino himself, maintains that it’s “a metaphor for big dicks.” When it comes time to cough up some green for the tip, Mr. Pink, played by Steve Buscemi, refuses on principle, sparking a heated debate about the ethics of not tipping automatically This seminal scene was filmed at Pat and Lorraine’s at 4270 Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, which is still open today. Later on in the film, Freddy, played by Tim Roth, meets up with L.A.P.D chief Holdaway (Randy Brooks) to discuss his plans to go undercover and infiltrate the crime gang as Mr. Orange. This scene was filmed at Johnie’s Coffee Shop and Restaurant, which is used occasionally for movie shoots but is closed to the public. Cue the world’s tiniest violin. You can catch another glimpse of Johnie’s in movies like Big Lebowski and American History X, also mentioned in this blog. Tarantino would choose to open his second film, Pulp Fiction, in a diner as well, with Tim Roth returning as one-half of the thieving couple nicknamed Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.
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.