Read Time: 4 Minutes
La Revanche Vs The Revenge.
What started as a visit to a French supplier of chocolates for La Cuisine became an almost annual hosting competition between us and the Panels, the superb chocolatier family outside of Lyon. They, along with Julia Cuvy would plan a two-week trip to showcase a certain area of France and we would in turn plan one to showcase some uniquely American sights, foods and experiences. This became what I referred to as the La Revanche Francais vs The American Revenge competition. We all shared things in our respective countries that we would never have tried had we not wanted to explore them with friends whose delight in the experience would be as much fun as the venue itself.
Guided by Stephanie Gorenflo, our baking Cuisinette who knew a thing or two about wonderfully obscure travelling experiences, was a planned road trip to Maine. She told us to take a certain coastal route, replete with wonderful views of New England we would have missed. She suggested we stop by for lunch at a real American diner in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Jiggers is one of a surprisingly large handful of original railway car sized eateries that still operate independently — and produce good food, using local sources where possible. Les Trois Js just loved it. Julia had her first old-fashioned Club Sandwich; Jean Claude and my husband both had their pie with a local cherry vanilla ice cream. Even the coffee in a big mug was good – Les Trois Js all pronounced that it did not taste like a “tisane” (herb tea). A few photos were taken by us and the Jiggers staff. And of course I had to look up the history of this uniquely American tradition in dining.
An American Original
Although these train-car-sized restaurants were a 20th century development, their roots lay in late 19th century moving lunch wagons, according to the writers from Atlas Obscura. Most were pretty scruffy- looking, but there were attempts to fashion the interiors to resemble the slick dining cars from that newfangled form of transportation – the train. These meals on wheels had captured the imagination of the American public. The earliest designer of an easily transportable lunch wagon was Patrick Tierney. When zoning codes prevented these dining wagons from parking in newly developed residential areas (sound familiar?) he developed prefabricated ones that could fit on a sliver of property. He is credited with introducing electric lighting instead of kerosene, attractive tile floors, and most important of all, indoor toilets. He may have even coined the term “diner” from his inspiration of the railway dining car. Although some diners were actually fashioned from old railroad cars, other manufacturers jumped on the trend, and part of the niftyness was that these sleek little eateries could be shipped to their destinations across the US on train flatbeds. It was not until the 1940s that Paramount Manufacturing Company developed a pre-fabricated diner with options that could be shipped in pieces. This innovation freed the diner from its dining car shape, but the dining car aesthetics and the nostalgic diner menu remained.
Post Pandemic Road Trip
These diners had another thing in common besides sleek design and low-cost construction – an inexpensive menu. They were supposed to be an Everyman’s dining hall — in theory if not in practice. They gained a reputation for being open early in the morning until late at night to accommodate different worker shifts. Whereas a French or Italian restaurant in the US conferred conviviality along with food, the diner became a symbol of the okayness of solitary eating Hopper’s painting of NightHawks or the TV series Twin Peaks both evoked this aura. Although the glory years of diners were diminished by the advent of fast food franchises, there still exist quite a few real diners across the US, like Jiggers. My daughter Tatiana (otherwise known as the Italy Insider) and her husband drove through Maine on a couple of road trips and have never forgotten the meal they had at the A1 Diner in Gardiner Maine- a resurrected 1946 Worcester diner successfully run by Mike Giberson and Neil Anderson. She even has their cookbook, filled with their quirky recipes and stories. Luckily there are some guides to other diners that are the real deal: Food & Wine Best Diners In America or Thrillist’s offering 21 Best Diners In America to name just two. Perhaps you’ll be fortunate and find your own A1 Diner or Jiggers. In any case, I feel a post-pandemic road trip coming on.