A diner in the "traditional" American sense is a prefabricated restaurant, built at a company site complete with kitchen, dining area and all the fixins, then shipped off to its destination. Originally "lunch wagons" were former railroad dining cars, moved to a site and set in permanently like some folks do with mobile homes. So along comes the Worcester Lunch Car Company, which did nice business in the early 20th century by building the dining cars for installation. They weren't real railroad cars anymore, no rolling stock or nothing, but designed to look just the same. You can tell a Worcester diner by the fact that, well, it looks like a railroad car, sleek and streamlined, and it usually has the name painted on the front in Gothic-style lettering. Each one is also numbered, and a proud owner will only be more than happy to tell you their diner's history.
A wonderful example of the Worcester style is Somerville's own Rosebud, a block or two away from me here in Davis Square. I could go there right now if I wanted to! Despite any misgivings you may have about the food or the service, and some locals have 'em, the dining car has been restored to a beautiful sight. There's stained glass transoms around the vaulted ceiling, a beautiful neon sign, and the wood fixtures all look gorgeous.
Worcester cars are also long and narrow. Later diner manufacturers, such as the Jerry O'Mahony Company in New Jersey, built larger units, double-wides if you will, and covered 'em with shiny shiny stainless steel. These are more common in Long Island and further on down the East Coast, often owned by Greek families and given appropriate names such as The Athenian or, um, The Athenian II. As luck would have it, there's one of these models a block or two away from me as well, Kelly's Diner in Ball Square. I could go there right now if I wanted to! No, wait, I couldn't; Kelly's caters to the breakfast/lunch crowd and closes at 3:00 pm every day.
Then there are the hybrids, the custom builds, and the expanded diners. The Deluxe Town Diner is one of these. It started off life as a 1930s Worcester car, and you can still see remnants of the original in the lunch counter. Along the way, however, the diner was expanded by its owners, with a dining area added on to one side and a small bakery shop grafted on to the other, and I presume the kitchen facilities have been expanded as well. The front has been remodeled but kept traditional, and there's a big neon sign on top with a clock and everything.
In recent years the Deluxe has altered its menu, still offering the Blue Plate Specials and everything you need out of a good greasy spoon, but it's also gone upscale. You can get a Kobe beef burger there if you want, though I'll leave any hand-wringing over that to the Kobe purists. (One of the hallmarks of Kobe beef is its tender texture, which you kinda lose if you make it into ground beef. Still, I bet it tastes all right.) You can also get a buffalo burger, and I have before and it was very good.
They also make about eighty-nine different kinds of pancakes, from traditional buttermilk to blue cornmeal to some really swell cracked corn johnnycakes. I usually go to the Deluxe when I get a hankering for johnnycakes, but this time around I tried the ployes, which are Acadian in origin and made solely from buckwheat flour and water. They're a lot spongier than regular pancakes and have an odd color, but they soak up syrup just fine.
The Deluxe has gone out of its way to present a "retro" feel in its menus and signage, and they do an admirable job of not falling into the 1950s James Dean/Marilyn Monroe trap. (Those are not diners; those are drive-ins. Or tourist traps.) Meanwhile, the interior is original, honest and old school. The upholstered booths are more often than not fixed with duct tape, the walls in the expanded dining area are covered with black-and-white local photographs, and there's one old readerboard above the counter with missing letters that were probably last seen during the Nixon administration. Your coffee is served in thick, thick ceramic mugs, another sign of goodness, and your water is served in a big, ostentatious glass bottle labelled "TAP WATER". The Deluxe has gone upscale, but not totally upscale. A fine show of New England restraint and humor.
I like going to these places on off hours, quiet afternoons between the lunch and dinner rush. There I can sit with a book in a relatively empty place, listen to the regulars shoot the breeze and get occasional refills when the waitress gets up from her counter stool to look around at her section. I have come to expect slow service at diners, and consider it a kind of laid-back charm, to be honest. If I'm allowed to linger, I'm obviously not in a rush and besides, acting like an entitled ass doesn't get you anywhere except possibly hustled out the door, here's-your-check-what's-your-hurry. Diners are my happy place. I go and relax.
The Deluxe is on the 7-something bus line, which I took to get back to Harvard once I was well and duly finished with my meal. I had to meet someone at 5:00 and it was nearing 4:30 anyway, so a walk back wasn't an option. While on the bus I watched a very distinguished-looking, well-dressed gentleman enjoy a trial size bottle of mouthwash. He'd take it out of his jacket breast pocket like a flask, unscrew the cap and take a most elegant tipple. Then he would put the cap back on with gravitas and stow it for another minute or so. It was fascinating but also profoundly sad.