The Vanishing American Diner

 Courtesy Aaron Calvin

George The Chili King, like any great restaurant, looks the way it tastes. A sign emblematic in style of mid-twentieth century America reading "Café Drive In" points to a small, red shingled building with a crown below marquee lettering that shares a parking lot with the Tobacco Hut. Stretching behind the fading white paint of the Chili King is a line of segmented stalls where you can park your car in the fashion of so-called sock hops from some archetypal '50s heartland.

But this isn't a gimmick of nostalgic branding common to chains like Sonic or Red Robin. George Karaidos Jr. was set up with the current iteration by his father, founder and purveyor of the now defunct original George the Chili King in downtown Des Moines in 1920. The location that's standing today was established in 1952, just west of the original, in the Windsor Heights neighborhood, and it's part of a dying breed of classic American diners.


The ubiquitous chili is made by the vat in grease-laden pots stuffed with a generous helping of fat and meat that encases beans, cheese, and various spices. The classic order is a bowl of it followed by either a chili dog or a Coney, the latter being a hamburger patty cut in half and placed on a hot dog bun then covered in chili. There's also the aptly named Fat Man and Fat Woman, both built around a monstrous and crispy fried tenderloin. They have a world atlas on the wall upon which diners from all over the world have placed pins demarcating their place of origin, and a notebook filled with superlatives from those diners about the quality of George's singular chili.

"People from all over tell me it's the best chili they've ever had," Karaidos says over the phone in a stolen moment from a busy rush hour. "Our chili is Mexican chili. It don't have tomatoes. It's chili con carne," he says when asked to characterize his diner's main attraction. "We're Greeks, but we have Mexican chili." Contrary to popular belief, being an authentic American eatery actually requires fairly ambiguous roots.

Fame has come in small doses. The original location was name-checked by popular travel writer Bill Bryson in his memoir The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid. Bryson recalls it with a degree of nostalgia among comments of general distaste for having to be from Des Moines at all. It was also featured in a segment of Guy Fieri’s popular Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. The episode features Fieri's trademark catchphrases while Kariados demonstrates how to make their chili and other various dishes in a fumbling, purposeful cadence that old men from Iowa tend to have. The stalls behind the main building are full of customers being served in their cars, smiling while Fieri points a camera at them.


Although the numbers are shrinking each year, these diners exist all over the country. Not restaurants renowned for their fine dining or innovative chefs or gimmicky mythology, but the kind of eateries where simple, well-made food has made them a part of the bedrock of a community in the same way as a library or a church or a school. These restaurants, often dubbed "greasy spoons," often have a history that goes beyond the idealized past and informs their relationship with the present.

Austin, Texas, has Cisco's Bakery & Bar, which has been operating in some form since 1942 and has been at its current location since 1950. It's currently overseen by Clovis Cisneros, whose family has owned the diner for three generations. He works the restaurant turning out migas and tacos from 7:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. The specialty is no-frills Tex-Mex breakfast food that a mass of regulars swear by. 

For over half a hundred years, Cisco's has been a mainstay of the city's food culture. But in the last decade, with the rise of South By Southwest and the growth of Austin as an oasis for young creatives, real estate values have skyrocketed. Newer, larger residential buildings have been cropping up. Serving a steady stream of migas, no matter how legendary, is difficult to do all your life, and in 2010, Cisco's was put on the market for $3.8 million. It's an outrageous price, but one that also indicates how much the restaurant is truly worth to the Cisneros. "I've been coming in here 40-something years and I've had enough. Can you imagine waking up on weekends and putting out a thousand orders of migas in one day?" he told the Austin American Statesman. Despite this claim of frustration, Cisco's remains.

Austin isn't a small town anymore, and Cisneros does claim that the area north of the restaurant, where he lives, has been filled with more people that he describes as "riff raff." When I asked him what he thought the secret to Cisnero's longevity is, he had a slightly more pragmatic answer than the food or the tradition. "It's because we own the building," he said. "When these other, newer restaurants have to pay rent every month, they won't last. But we own the property, so we can keep our expenses low." Cisco’s is an Austin institution and tradition, and the Cisneros family has served the Austin community generation after generation, but the work is quite literally life consuming.


Perhaps traditions just need some fresh blood once in a while. Arleen Harkins has owned The Village Diner in Red Hook, New York, for 32 years. She and her husband came to the diner as though it where delivered to them by fate, or that's how it seemed to them. In their lives before the diner, they still met there every morning for breakfast before going off to work jobs in Corporate, USA (Harkins' term). Her mother, a real estate agent, encouraged her to purchase The Diner.

"We have done every aspect of the diner," she said over the phone one evening. "We've done dishes, we've mopped floors. My husband is a short-order cook there. I do most of the food creations and the baking."

The Village Diner is an original of a specific type of diner manufactured in the early twentieth century. In a time obsessed with automation, Silk City Diners like The Diner were nicknamed "The Cadillac of Diners," manufactured in Paterson, New Jersey. They were then shipped by railroad to wherever they were desired, built ready to serve with pre-fabricated glassware, plates and silverware. It was originally located on the Tatonic State Parkway and was originally dubbed The Halfway Diner due to its location between Albany and New York City. It was moved to its current location in Red Hook in 1950.

"We have people who come in for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Politicians come in and do films there. If you ask anybody, they'll say, 'Oh yeah, The Village Diner. We know where that is,'" Harkins said. She’s taken steps to make sure it stays that way. The building has its name in the New York Historical Register (the first diner in New York, fourth in the nation), and the Harkins have preserved it all the way down to the elbow creases on tables, upholding their love of roadside dining architecture. When the time eventually comes to sell the diner, they won’t mind if someone changes the menu, as they have done themselves over the years.

While some so-called food fanatics might disagree, these diners serve up some of the most singular food in America in these unassuming buildings. Weathering culinary trends throughout the years with a commitment to making good and simple food has proven these restaurants are more than just places to go to get nostalgic. Places like George The Chili King, Cisco's, and The Village Diner are supposed to be emblematic of the possibility for enduring success in America through tradition, but the history and continued survival of these restaurants is just as complex and changing as the lives of those who have made them.