A love letter to the diner in Toronto
The diner is one of an old breed of businesses that had their heyday in the 1950s and '60s, a group which includes motels and independent gas bars. Far from extinct, the neon-lit diner stubbornly endures because it offers an alluring combination of simplicity and comfort, both of which evoke a profound sense of nostalgia.
It's strange, but beautiful things rarely elicit a nostalgic response. On the contrary, it's the artifacts of the everyday that tend to make us wistful for a bit of our past that has escaped us but nevertheless lingers like a ghost desperate to tell us something about ourselves and the way that we've changed.
Toronto's diners aren't pretty places. Viewed with a clinical eye, they're an aesthetic mess, complete with ugly yellow wall-mounted menus, ever greasy counters, and sepia-tinged walls. And yet if one squints when sinking into a maroon vinyl booth at the Skyline, he can almost see back to the 1960s, when the decor matched the decade.
Why do I still love diners?
It's not the weak coffee and anonymous under-seasoned fries that accompany most meals, though I'd be lying if I said I wasn't fond of these things. There's a consistency offered by the diner experience that's reminiscent of the functional motel room.
Your plate will be basic and unadorned, but from one place to the next, the meal will be remarkably similar. Lured by the gentle glow of neon, one enters into a room outfitted with standard issue sugar jars, napkin dispensers, and ketchup bottles. Staring down at the counter, it'd be possible to forget exactly where you are.
Individual diners tend to blend with one another. The Coach House and the Skyline have uncannily similar interiors, while the bacon and eggs at the Apollo Eleven is virtually indistinguishable from the version served at the nearby Vesta Lunch. Both places bask in the fuzzy haze of nostalgia for a time that many of us never experienced in the first place.
If the diner has achieved iconic status, it's the result of a complicated cultural construction that has delivered us a perception of the '50s and '60s as simpler times. The degree to which Vesta recalls an Edward Hopper painting, for instance, is surely one of the reasons why it remains dear to this city. The place is already familiar before one even steps foot inside.
The same holds true for the wood-panelled Senator, which looks like it might as well be a set for a Mad Men episode. Never mind that the food is only so-so, being here is like taking a time machine back to a decade in which the idea of a restaurant "being cool" is completely foreign.
Our access to the past is mediated by the manner in which it has been constructed. You can look at this as a bad thing or you can embrace the fact that this situation gives us the opportunity to rejoice in simple throwbacks like the diner. Despite how overdetermined the image of the diner is in popular culture, our experience of the place is one of simplicity.
In this sense, the diner is like a drug. There's a hell of a lot going on inside one's brain when he or she gets high, but the end result is a feeling of euphoria. When we park ourselves at a counter-side stool and order a BLT at Gale's Snack Bar or the Patrician Grill or the George Street Diner, we quietly await our temporary fix of nostalgia.
It inevitably fades, so we continue to go back for more.
Photos (in order) by Chris Cachia, Tanja Tiziana (Bus Terminal Diner), Adrienne Tam (Gale's Snack Bar), Libby Roach (Times Square Diner), Miriam Olszewski (George Street Diner), Phil Marion (Skyline), Randy McDonald (Apollo Eleven), Ned Lyttelton (Vesta Lunch), Derek Flack (Senator), Peter McLeod (Patrician Grill), Jason Cook (George Street Diner), and Dakotas222.
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