America's Diner

America’s Diner
Polaroid SX-70
Polaroid Color SX-70 Film
2020

When I was in my 20s and didn’t make much money an occasional dinner at Denny’s was a treat. Super Bird sandwich and fries, please.

I don’t know whether my palate has become more sophisticated, or whether the quality of Denny’s food isn’t what it was 30 years ago, but I don’t enjoy Denny’s all that much today.

However, one of our kids was on the crew that opened this Denny’s a few months ago. For a few days before they opened, the crew’s friends and family got to dine for free with the crew member while they all learned the ropes. That free dinner was delicious. The Super Bird is still on the menu after all these years.

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Film Photography

single frame: America’s Diner

Polaroid photo of a brand new Denny’s diner.

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Photography, Road Trips

Published: My photo of a stainless-steel 1950s diner on US 40 in Plainfield, Indiana

My photo of a 1950s stainless-steel diner on US 40 east of Plainfield is featured in a new book from Indiana Landmarks.

The Diner
Minolta X-700, 50mm f/1.7 Minolta MD, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200, 2009

The book, Rescued and Restored, “celebrates remarkable historic places snatched from the wrecking ball or lifted from decades of neglect.” So says the Web page Indiana Landmarks put up about the book, which includes a link to purchase a copy. See it here.

My copy of the book arrived last week, and it is a lush look at many beautiful and interesting historic structures around Indiana, telling their stories and showing photographs before and after they were restored.

You’ll find the Oasis Diner on page 77. It was manufactured by Mountain View Diners, a New Jersey company, in 1954 and shipped to its original site on US 40 east of Plainfield. It operated there until 2008.

Stainless-steel diners like these were once common on the American roadscape, but have dwindled in number over the years. Indiana Landmarks worked with the City of Plainfield to find it a new place to operate, and new owners who would restore it.

In 2014 the diner was moved about four miles west, still on US 40 but in downtown Plainfield. After an extensive restoration, including a recreation of the original Oasis sign that had been removed many years before, the Oasis Diner reopened for business in November, 2014. I made this photo on my first visit, about a month later.

Oasis Diner
Canon PowerShot S95, 2014

I have thin memories of passing this diner by from trips along US 40 as early as 1984. I first paid real attention to it on my 2006 road trip along US 40 and the National Road in western Indiana. I made that trip again in 2009, which is when I made the featured photograph. See this post for a writeup of this stop on both of those road trips.

When the Oasis Diner was being moved and restored, Indiana Landmarks asked for permission to use my photograph in their publications. I gave it happily. I am a Landmarks member and support their mission. I loved the thought that one of my documentary road-trip photos could find a useful purpose beyond being on my blog. My photo appeared in news articles about the diner, as well as in at least one issue of Indiana Landmarks’ monthly member magazine.

I thought that would be it, but then this year they used it again in an email to members announcing the book. Had they not done that I might never have known they published it in this book!

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Photography

Sons at diners photographed with box cameras

It was going to be a series: photos of my boys leaning on my car in front of various restaurants where we ate dinner. And I was going to use nothing but box cameras. Then I made just two photos. It’s not much of a series.

Boys at Waffle House
Ansco B-2 Cadet, Kodak Ektar 100, 2016

I suppose I could make more, eventually. But now that both boys are out of high school we’ll simply go out together a lot less often. And what are the odds I’ll have a loaded box camera then?

The boys at Perkins
Kodak Six-20, Kodak Verichrome Pan (exp 9/1982), 2016

The boys live near an Interstate highway, so the available restaurants are the chain diners you expect to find at an exit. I have a bunch of dietary restrictions which make ordering at a restaurant tricky. But I can always confidently order the bacon and eggs.

It so happens that I sent both rolls of film to Old School Photo Lab for processing. I didn’t order prints, but they printed these two images anyway and sent them to me for nothing. The prints are truly wonderful! Far better than these scans. Crisper, more vivid. If I didn’t tell you I took them with box cameras, you’d never know.

© 2016-17 Jim Grey. All rights reserved.

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Oasis Diner

It’s a gleaming stainless-steel 1954 Mountain View diner, shipped by rail from the New Jersey factory and opened for business on US 40, the old National Road, just east of Plainfield, Indiana. It served there for more than 50 years before hard times befell it and it closed. That’s how I found it when I last toured the National Road across western Indiana, in 2009; I hoped to take my breakfast there. See a photo of it that day deep in this post. And then the health department declared an addition behind the diner unsound. As the last diner of its type on the National Road, preservationists swung into action. This year, it moved four miles west into the town of Plainfield, where it was restored and reopened. The Oasis sign is a reproduction from photographs; the original had been removed decades ago. The Diner sign is original but restored.

My sons and I visited for dinner a couple weeks ago with some road-trip-loving friends. My younger son and I had cheeseburgers — they grind bacon into their beef for extra flavor. My other son had the cheesesteak, which he called “amazing.” The company and the setting were pretty darn good, too.

Photography, Road Trips

Captured: Oasis Diner

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Road Trips

Goodbye, Whitehouse Restaurant

Whitehouse No. 1

Logansport’s Whitehouse Restaurant closed its doors for good on Saturday after 73 years.

Little family-run diners used to be typical; every town had at least one. They began disappearing in the late 1970s, by my estimation, as fast-food and diner-style chain restaurants really caught on. I think that the wide availability of places like McDonald’s and Denny’s, coupled with the consistency and predictability of their offerings, made them feel like a safer choice.

Today, it takes an adventurous spirit to stop for a cheeseburger at a place like The Whitehouse. To be blunt, it was run down, as the photo above shows. Inside, seven decades of patrons resting their arms on the counters wore the color off the laminate. It spoke of owners who weren’t making a killing in the restaurant business, but who kept at it because they loved it and it made a good enough living for them. In truth, the restaurant was clean, the staff was friendly, and the food was good. But it probably felt safer for most people to drive on to the next fast-food place.

Peace of Pie

I know I felt that way. I’ve driven through Logansport a hundred times, easy, over the last 30 years. The Whitehouse is on the Michigan Road, which is always the route I take through town. But when I was hungry, I always drove right past The Whitehouse and went a little out of my way to visit a Mickey D’s.

Curiosity finally got the better of me about six years ago, and I stopped for a cheeseburger. What a great cheeseburger it was, the kind with crispy edges! I wished I had taken the chance years and years before. I’ve stopped every time I found them open since (which could be tricky, as their hours were 4 a.m. to 1 p.m.). Once my sons in the car with me at lunchtime as we passed through town, and we stopped. It was very cool to let them experience something that had once been very common in America.

A fellow named Lester worked the grill. He had been at it for 60 years when he passed away in early 2012. I wondered then how much longer The Whitehouse would hang on, as it seemed like he was the force that kept the place going. And now here we are.

Are there any family-run places near where you are? Go visit them today.

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

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Road Trips

Lunch at the White House (the one in Logansport, on the Michigan Road)

You don’t need an invitation from Barack Obama to eat at this White House.

Whitehouse No. 1

Longtime readers may remember this Logansport joint, as I shared the above photo here late last year. I pass by fairly frequently as it stands on the old Michigan Road, which I drive between my home in Indianapolis and my parents’ home in South Bend. Last time I drove by, my sons were along and we were hungry. So we stopped and had double cheeseburgers and fries.

Peace of Pie

This place is an anachronism, which is why I enjoyed it so much. It looks like they started operations in about 1960 and then never changed anything. The countertop supports this – all the forearms that have rested on it over the past 60 years have worn the laminate’s top layer away, leaving black blotches behind. They have a surprisingly large menu; it looks like they make everything possible out of the basic ingredients they keep on hand. Lunch here won’t hurt your pocketbook, but don’t hand them your debit card when you’re done eating. Cash only.

Out of Order

This place is tiny, with just eight seats at the counter and four cramped booths. These little juke boxes are in every booth, and there are two at the counter. None of them work; judging by the music loaded in them, they’ve been broken since the late 1990s. A couple of them have For Sale notices taped to them in case you collect such things!

The Michigan Road is Indiana’s first state-funded highway, built in the 1830s to connect the Ohio River to Lake Michigan through Indianapolis. I’m the co-chair of a committee working to have the Michigan Road named a State Historic Byway. We’re very close – we have submitted the application and present our case to the Indiana Department of Transportation next week! For more information, see our Web site, www.historicmichiganroad.org.

I’ve documented Indiana’s historic Michigan Road extensively. To read all about it, click here.

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