Here’s the Real Reason Why Diners Look Like Train Cars

You'll probably never look at a diner the same way again.

train car dinerJames Kirkikis/shutterstock

The combination of cramped booths, a shiny interior, and a menu filled with low-priced comfort foods is truly an American staple. Whether you’re on a road trip or looking for a bite to eat in the morning, you can never go wrong with a diner—especially any of these iconic diners. Besides their good food and even better prices, they’re also really easy to spot. The reason? Many look like train cars.

Diners actually started off mobile. In 1872, Walter Scott invented the first “night lunch wagon.” He would serve hot, inexpensive meals out of a horse-drawn wagon that he had converted into a car (similar to a modern-day food truck!). Customers would be served out of the wagon’s window and eat their food on the go. After becoming quite popular, the “night lunch wagon” sparked the creation of “rolling restaurants”—a few seats within a car that allowed you to eat while traveling to your destination. Soon after, these on-the-go restaurants started being built into train cars as well. Called “dining cars,” they featured rows of boldly colored booths lined up against the windows and chrome finishes to match the rest of the train. “Dining cars” was eventually shortened to just “diner.” (But that abbreviation doesn’t even compare to how these 15 restaurants changed their names.)

Jerry O’Mahony founded the factory that shipped all of the original pre-fabricated diners across the country, and built the first stationary diner in 1913, with the design modeled after the chrome look of a train car. Since diners were manufactured to be shipped by truck or train, it limited what shape they could be. The shape that made the most sense was that of a classic train car. Soon, diners started popping up all over the United States.

Modern diners today are shaped a little bit differently. But most still have chrome finishes and tightly arranged booths to give it that locomotive feel. If you enjoyed this trip down memory lane, here’s how 8 famous fast food restaurants first started out.

Popular Videos

Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is an Associate Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. She writes for rd.com, helps lead the editorial relationship with our partners, manages our year-round interns, and keeps the hundreds of pieces of content our team produces every month organized. In her free time, she likes exploring the seacoast of Maine where she lives and works remotely full time and snuggling up on the couch with her corgi, Eggo, to watch HGTV or The Office.