Diners are defined by what’s on the inside, afficianados say
People can get very touchy about what makes a restaurant a diner, say Brian Butko and Kevin Patrick in the introduction to their book “Diners of Pennsylvania.”
For their purposes, they defined a diners as “a factory-built restaurant transported to its site of operation.”
Others, of course, will differ.
Does that gleaming stainless-steel structure continue to be a diner if it’s now doing business as a sushi bar?
Or what about that place on the edge of town that’s open 24/7, serves breakfast all day, has homemade pies and a great cup of coffee served in a no-nonsense ceramic mug — but is located in a former garage?
Art Velisaris who — with his brothers George, Perry and Pete — owns Ritter’s Diner in Bloomfield, says the structure is part of the definition. But what happens inside completes the package.
“What makes a diner unique is that it’s a family-type restaurant that serves everybody and emphasizes home-cooked meals,” he says.
In reality, a diner is more an experience than an actual place.
We may differ on specifics. But we know right away when we’re eating in an authentic one.
Penn State Diner
Walk into the Diner at Penn State University at 2 a.m. pretty much any night of the week and it will seem like it’s the middle of the day. This is a popular gathering place after the bars have closed, as well as the place to get a bite to eat after a long night of studying. The establishment is open 24 /7 and is located in the heart of the nightlife.
The extensive menu includes everything from breakfast to dinner, but the most popular item is the “Famous Grilled Sticky,” a tasty cinnamon roll topped with sugar served grilled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for $3.99. You can even order stickies online.
Other menu items include the Nittany Lion — two eggs, home fries, choice of bacon, ham or sausage and a grilled sticky for $6.95.
Homemade soups include vegetarian vegetable and French onion for $3.95. There are burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches and cheesesteaks from $4.95 to $6.95. Selections such as meatloaf, fish and hot roast turkey are $5.95 to $7.25.
State College has been a diner town since the 1920s, with seven different diners operating under a variety of names. The Diner has been called Ye Olde College Diner, New College Diner and College Diner. Over the years, it was expanded and remodeled. In 1995, the wooden tabletops were redone with formica, covering years’ worth of initials and graffiti, and in late 1998, it was redone with a post-modern retro look.
The Diner, 126 W. College Ave., State College. Open 24 hours a day. 814-238-5590 or www.thedineronline.com
— Joanne Klimovich Harrop
Gatto’s Cycle Diner
A new phase in the life of Gatto’s Cycle Diner began this summer when Tim Allshouse became proprietor, renting it from the adjacent Gatto’s Cycle Shop in Tarentum. George Gatto bought the 1946 O’Mahony diner in 1990, moved it to its present location and renovated after it had fallen into disrepair. It had been bought in 1947 by Herman Dight and had two subsequent owners.
Allshouse, 28, will retain the classic ’50s decor, including the photos of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and historic Harley-Davidson bikes. He’s looking to extend hours, add a pizza oven and have the Wurlitzer jukebox repaired.
The flat grill and deep fryer are the heart of diner cooking, where breakfast combinations, sandwiches and omelets are prepared ($1.29 to $6.49). Hamburgers range from $3.99 for a 1/3-pounder to $4.99 for a 1/2-pounder. The Donker is a 1-pound burger ($7.99); the Homer a half pound of ground beef mixed with a half pound of sausage ($9.99).
Gatto’s Cycle Diner, East 6th Avenue & Wood Street, Tarentum. Hours: 8 a.m. -3 p.m. Mondays to Fridays, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays. Details: 724-224-0500
— Mark Kanny
It may not look like a traditional diner on the outside, but Dick’s Diner in Murrysville has a heart of cold stainless steel.
When it opened in 1946, the roadside restaurant was housed in a sleek, silver prefabricated “railroad car” that most of us associate with traditional diners.
“The original dining car was purchased in New Jersey, railroaded out here and dropped in place,” says Michael Strickland, who runs the day-to-day operations with his brother, Andy. “The roof and walls are still there. You have to peel back a couple layers of renovation.”
As the grandsons of founder and namesake Richard Synder, the brothers are the third generation to dish the steak and eggs at the popular meeting spot.
The plain-Jane interior doesn’t attempt to re-create retro kitsch from America’s post-war love affair with the automobile. But hungry, time-pressed patrons can still grab a stool and belly up to the counter. Additional seating is available in the adjoining dining room.
The menu features homemade comfort food like grilled steer liver and onions ($7.19; $8.19 with bacon) and the Triple Decker Club sandwich ($6.09). The Country Breakfast ( $6.79) features two hot cakes with two eggs, home fries and a choice of sausage, bacon or ham, with toast and jelly.
Michael Strickland says they’re probably best known for their desserts, which include Bumble-Berry pie ($3.29), a confection made with peaches, blackberries and cherries.
Dick’s Diner, 4200 William Penn Highway, Murrysville. Hours: 6:30 a.m. -10 p.m. daily. Details: 724-327-4566.
— William Loeffler
Dean’s Diner on Route 22 in Blairsville is the last remnant of a chain of five in Western Pennsylvania — including Indiana, Forest Hills and New Castle — owned by the Dean family by the 1940s. In Blairsville, Dean’s opened downtown in 1934. When the four-lane Route 22 bypass opened in 1953, Emerson Dean moved the business to where the travelers were. It is located one hour directly east of Pittsburgh, on the route followed by many to the Penn State main campus in State College. The restaurant was run for decades by Emerson’s son, Darrell, who died in 2003. Now it is owned by Darrell’s two sons, Kevin and Breck.
The original Fodero dining car remains, with a long Formica countertop, stainless steel walls and spinning green stools, plus nine padded booths. It has been supplemented with a larger dining room attached to the original diner.
Waitresses dressed all in white provide prompt and friendly service 24 hours a day. And the food is basic, filling and inexpensive.
Breakfasts range from two eggs for $2.50 to a Western omelet ($4.30) or eggs with ham ($5.85).
For lunch and dinner, there are a variety of sandwiches from the $1.25 peanut butter & jelly to the fish sandwich for $4.05. Dinner entrees include Baked Meat Loaf or Grilled Liver ($5.75) and Breaded Shrimp ($8.25) or Grilled Pork Chops ($9.75), both include two vegetables and a roll.
And forget to get a piece of homemade pie ($2.60). The best-sellers are coconut cream and peanut butter chocolate, but there are plenty more to choose from.
Dean’s Diner, 2175 Route 22 Hwy. W, Blairsville. Open 24 hours a day. Details: 724-459-9600
— Susan Jones
There’s seldom a quiet moment at Ritter’s Diner in Bloomfield. While busiest at lunch on weekdays and for brunch on weekends, its 24/7 service makes it a popular stop for night owls and late-night partiers as well as students, retirees, executives, families and just about anyone else.
Soups, pies, home fries and the rest are made on-premises. So is the gravy that’s used on the diner’s most popular entrees — meat loaf and hot roast beef sandwiches, says Art Velisaris, who co-owns Ritter’s Diner with brothers George, Perry and Pete.
Be sure you bring cash. No credit cards are accepted, says Velisaris, who explains the average check is $8 and he doesn’t want to keep customers waiting while the cashier deals with credit transactions. Instead, there is an ATM near the cash register.
Ritter’s Diner, 5221 Baum Boulevard, Bloomfield. Open 24 hours daily, except for some major holidays. Cash only. 412-681-4852
— Alice T. Carter
Johnny’s Diner in the West End is considered Pittsburgh’s oldest diner, dating to the 1920s. According to “Diners of Pennsylvania,” it has gone by names like Eve’s, Franny’s, Bell’s, Bell-Ray, Marie’s, Palumbo’s, Irene’s and most recently Pip’s, since arriving in the West End in 1954.
From the outside, it looks like a dive bar, due to a very 1970s exterior job. Inside, it’s a 1920s Tierney diner, very cozy without being cramped. The new owner, Kathy Elliott, changed the diner’s longstanding name, Pip’s, to Johnny’s last year, and with it, the menu.
Hamburgers are the main draw, she says.
“They also come for our breakfasts,” says Elliott. “And chili. Now, we’re doing fresh soup every day. When it was Pip’s, it was all frozen. We’ve changed a lot of things.”
Johnny’s, 1900 Woodville Ave., West End. Hours: 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 7 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Details: 412-922-2900
— Michael Machosky
The quintessential vintage Americana diner has been serving locals and Pennsylvania Turnpike drivers since July 11, 1960, in the Laurel Highlands. The Summit Diner — located right off of the turnpike’s Somerset exit — offers a menu full of down-home, made-to-order cooking. The menu includes breakfast foods like pancakes and waffles and sausage, burgers, sandwiches, ice cream and malts, homemade pies, salads and soups.
“We’re family-owned, so prices are very reasonable,” says owner Mitzi Foy. “You can take your own family out to eat here.”
A grilled cheese is $1.44, and a cheeseburger is $1.99.
Once a month from May through October, the eatery hosts the Summit Diner Car Cruise, where more than 100 classic cars park in front of the diner, then cruise through town. The next event is on Oct. 23.
Summit Diner, 791 N. Center Ave., Somerset. Hours: 5 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 5 a.m.-midnight p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, every day except Christmas. Details: 814-445-7154
— Kellie B. Gormly
The Yak Diner, formerly known as Yakkitty Yak Diner, opened in 1995 as a labor of love for owner Debbie Pugsley. She bought the diner on River Road along the Kiski River in North Apollo in 1992 or 1993. She spent the next couple years refurbishing the authentic 1956 O’Mahony model that originally was the Gateway Diner on Route 22 in Wilkins Township. When the Gateway closed in 1978, the building was auctioned off for $100 and ended up in Washington Township, where it became a convenience store and later a video store.
Pugsley bought the shell of the diner for $2,000 and set about replacing and repairing the booths, tables, stools, roof and equipment. Her patrons are mostly senior citizens and she figures that’s because they grew up in the 1950s — before fast-food restaurants started dotting the landscape. “That era got lost,” she says. But Pugsley does her part to bring it back.
Her customers are regulars. “That’s the backbone of a diner — the regulars,” she says. Even if she doesn’t know all their names, she knows their typical orders.
“We try to keep everything as close to a traditional diner menu as we can,” she says. There are nine ways to enjoy a burger ($3.10 to $4.10), a half-dozen of cold sandwich offerings, such as club sandwiches ($5.40) or egg salad ($2.45), and 13 other sandwiches — from a hefty fish sandwich ($6) to a sloppy Joe ($3.15). An all-you-can eat spaghetti dinner is a popular draw on Tuesdays.
Desserts — such as coconut cream and lemon meringue pies — are homemade, of course.
There’s seating for up to 59 diners at the stools at the counter, the booths and a handful of tables.
Yak Diner, River Road (Route 66), North Apollo. Hours: 7 a.m. -8 p.m. daily. Details: 724-478-2472
— Rebecca Killian