At four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon the shopping centre had few dining options. We had to resort to a place that called itself a “diner.” Its menu did not live up to its bright red banquettes and shining chrome, it only offered various combinations of burgers and fries.
The decor of a traditional American diner seems to epitomize that age of optimism. There was nothing in Britain to match the brightness and the brashness of the American eating place. The traditional British café, with its menu of fish and chips and a pot of tea, had none of the glamour and excitement that seemed to imbue the chrome, glass and plastic of the diners.
Even Americans seem to perceive that period as a golden age. Visiting California a decade ago, the chain of Lori’s Diners in San Francisco were fitted out in retro 1950s decor and reproduction artifacts. Not only were the interiors reproduced, there was a recovery of the atmosphere: good service, good food and good prices. Lori’s is the only place where I have seen people queueing in the street to wait for a table in order to have breakfast on a Sunday morning.
The American diner seemed to capture a sense of the best values of small town America: community and courtesy and companionship. In Garrison Keillor’s descriptions of 21st Century Lake Wobegon, his fictional town out on the edge of the Prairies in Minnesota, the Chatterbox Café, the local diner, was the heart of the life of the town.
To English eyes looking from across the Atlantic, the diner stood for more than small town values; it was a reminder of the things Americans had that we lacked.
Perhaps it derived from the fact they had money and we hadn’t. They wore clothes that made ours look drab, and they had plenty of them. They drove massive, extravagant, overstated cars: loud colours and tailfins, chrome and bright lights. Their houses were spacious, with refrigerators you could hide in and kitchens that lacked nothing you could imagine.
More than money, they seemed to have a sophistication which was absent from the England that was depicted on our two television channels where Coronation Street seemed an expression of national life.
Of course, the appearance were deceptive and the realities very different. Nevertheless, the Americans were, and remain, far better at optimism and exuberance, not such bad qualities with which to approach daily life.