Lunch counters, malt shops, and diners are all part of American history – they’re symbols of the past and recognized within popular culture, becoming the center social gathering in classic films and television. In Happy Days, “Arnold’s and Al’s Drive-In” was one of the most-used settings, and the majority of the show’s plot was based around the teenagers hanging out in that location. This is also true of other shows, like the use of “Monk’s” in Seinfeld and “Laslo’s Place” in Laverne and Shirley, as well as hundreds of others.
Although many such eateries do still exist, they’re mostly chains run by a large company, or they’re new but designed to make you feel like you’ve gone back in time. Some of the original joints still stand but have been reconstructed to appear more modern. But what’s the difference between these restaurants – the lunch counters, malt shops, and diners? And how did they come about?
Lunch counters, also called luncheonettes, are small restaurants. The customers sit on a stool on one side of the counter while the server stands on the other side. They were once most commonly located inside “five and dime” (or “five and ten”) retail stores and smaller department stores, which profited from hungry shoppers. The most typical food served are sandwiches, soups, pies, ice cream (which include ice cream sodas and milkshakes,) soda pop, coffee, and hot chocolate. Woolworth’s was one of the first “five and dime” stores, located in New Albany, Indiana in 1923 before rapidly expanding. Lunch counters are most often associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the South, where customers held sit-in political protests in order to integrate counter dining.
A lunch counter sit-in during the Civil Rights Movement, 1960. © U.S. Library of Congress.
Soda Shops, or malt shops, are similar to ice cream parlors and drugstore soda fountains. They often have large mirrors behind marble counters, goose-neck soda spouts, spinning stools, marble-topped tables, and sweetheart chairs. Malt shops were introduced in 1903, when drugstores added sandwiches and light lunches, sodas, ice cream sodas, chocolate malts, fountain colas, and milkshakes. By the time the 1930s and 1940s came around, jukeboxes were added, making them popular gathering spots for teenagers, as mentioned in the 1940s song “Jukebox Saturday Night.”
Those who read Archie Comics may remember the malt shop “Pop Tate’s Chocklit Shoppe,” and Scooby Doo fans are probably familiar with “The Malt Shop,” which was the mystery gang’s favorite hangout.
Drugstore soda shop, circa 1948. © Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection.
American diners are small restaurants that were originally found in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest, but have since expanded to other parts of the United States, as well as Canada and Western Europe. They often serve a wide range of food, mostly American cuisine, like burgers, fries, and sandwiches, and simple, quick, inexpensive food, mostly considered “comfort food.” Coffee is also a diner staple. The setting is casual and has a mix of booths and counters, and many are either open 24 hours or at least stay open late at night, especially those that are right off the highway. Because of this, diners are popular with truckers, who drive long hours. In 1872, Walter Scott sold food out of a horse-pulled wagon to employees of the Providence Journal, which is considered one of the earliest forms of a walk-up diner.
Lunch wagon in front of Buckley Factory. © Worcester Historical Museum.
In 1887, Thomas Buckley started commercial production of what were then called “lunch wagons.” From the 1920s through the 1940s, diners were built from converted railcars and were made in warehouses that were then delivered on site with utilities needing to be connected, like modern mobile homes. Although fast food chains took off in the 1970s, diners that are independently owned are still common.
Railcar diner. © James Kirkikis/Shutterstock.