The American Diner at Age 143 - Pacific Standard
The definitions and décor may change, but the diner remains our home, even when we've forgotten where home is.

Judge for Yourself Café is called a café, but really it's a diner. Those two words can be sort of synonymous, anyhow, especially these days. A café sometimes means the smell of espresso beans and the sound of polished indie-pop, but, as is the case with Judge for Yourself, a café can also mean slightly stale coffee and old rock songs. It is, for all intents and purposes, a diner.

Judge for Yourself sits directly across from the Santa Barbara Courthouse (hence the name). Surrounded by palm trees, basking in California sunshine, it's a far cry from the Pennsylvania diners that I grew up with—places with names like "The Gourmet" and "Bluebird Diner." Yet Judge for Yourself isn't really unfamiliar at all; it looks and smells exactly like the places my father used to take me to for eggs and pie on Sunday afternoons.

As much as Happy Days or On the Road, the diner and its constant renewal alike are undeniably, quintessentially American.

Sun-bleached photos line the walls of Judge for Yourself, including a poster from the 1988 Santa Barbara Greek festival and a wood-framed sign that reads "Old Lawyers Never Die They Just Lose Their Appeal." Oldies blare from a stereo sitting on a shelf above the cash register. Higher on the wall, a plaque from a local newspaper reminds patrons that the diner's bleu cheese and bacon omelet won the 2010 "Kill Your Hangover" award. A stack of newspapers occupies a stool next to the plain white countertop. The single-room establishment smells like bacon and butter. The place feels resigned—resigned to its average coffee, its over-worked staff, its role as a last outpost of sorts. In 2015, I'll take "diners" wherever I can find them.

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The diner has rightfully assumed a mythical place in the American landscape, no less so than baseball or Elvis or old Chevrolet pick-up trucks. It is at once a place where young boys and girls with their guts full of beer can go to idle, writers to think, gangsters to scheme. In a country that seems to become faster and louder with each successive version of the iPhone, diners remain havens of unruffled simplicity, where the only big question that needs answering is what song to play in the jukebox and whether you want hash browns or grits with that "Kill Your Hangover" omelet.

A real diner, according to the American Diner Museum, is a "prefabricated structure built at an assembly site and transported to a permanent location to serve prepared food." So, by technical standards, the hole-in-the-wall on the first floor of an old row house isn't really a diner; that shiny, silver curiosity on the New Jersey Turnpike is. In 2015, though, the distinction has sort of ceased to matter. If there's a counter with stools, if people are consuming sandwiches, coffee, and eggs over music that sounds like it belongs in your uncle's garage, and especially if the linoleum counters boast a layer of grease that will outlive us all, then it's probably a diner—even if it calls itself a café.

To paraphrase a waitress I once knew: A diner is a diner is a diner.

The New Englander Walter Scott (not to be confused with the British author) is credited with inventing the diner. A part-time pressman in Providence, Rhode Island, Scott spent several years selling coffee and sandwiches to reporters and editors on the night shift. Having enjoyed surprising success with his entirely mobile operation, he decided to create a slightly less mobile version. In 1872, Scott—then 31 years old—began selling food out of a horse-drawn wagon that he would keep parked all night outside of the Providence Journal office.

There were plenty of milestones that followed: Charles Palmer receiving the first patent for a diner in 1891; the early diners—which were more like wagons, really—being mass-produced and sold throughout the northeastern United States in the late 19th century; the creation of the iconic streamlined diner design in 1939; Edward Hopper's famous 1942 oil on canvas Nighthawks; a post-World War II boom; a decline, followed by a resurgence in the 1970s; the corporatization of the diner, with places like Denny's and Waffle House taking the place of neighborhood joints; and today, once again, an effort to bring the authentic diner back (including yes, a new reality series). It's all there: the optimism, the competition, the inevitable disappointment, and the doggedness that defines the American experience. As much as Happy Days or On the Road, the diner and its constant renewal are undeniably, quintessentially American.

Gunter Grass wrote in The Tin Drum that America is "the land where people find whatever they lost." But that America, too, has been lost.

Gunter Grass wrote in The Tin Drum that America is "the land where people find whatever they lost." I'm not sure I agree with that. America is a changing, evolving place, and the effects of that change are both positive (accepting racial and ethnic diversity) and negative (the decline of manufacturing). Our country's nostalgia seems to survive—at least for young people—in skewed bits of refraction, through Planet Hollywood and kitschy Coca-Cola posters. The diners (the real ones, at least) stand as a testament to a past that is in so many ways impossible to find. Go to rural America and you're more likely to spot a Target than a stationary train car serving eggs. You can't rediscover whatever's lost in America; that America, too, has been lost.

That's why the smell of apple pie and stale coffee is so much more significant than the bill declaring its value in money. These places are relics, humbling but comforting reminders of what we ate while we were tearing down an old America to build a new one.

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Elena is 41 years old and has been working as a waitress at Judge for Yourself for 23 years. "Right out of high school," she tells me. The job's been good to her; the customers are appreciative, and once in a while, she tells me while lowering her voice, a Los Angeles offshoot, like Michael Douglas or the doctor from Emergency, wanders in. (This is still Southern California, after all.)

My request for an audience with the owner and cook (Mr. Judge for Yourself himself!) is quickly rebuffed. "The owner doesn't like to talk," Elena says, with a knowing glance at a big-bodied man standing over a grill in a red apron. That's fine, I assure her; the last thing I want to do is get Elena in trouble with the chief. As we chat, I hear Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" in the background, an accompaniment to the smell of crisp, scorched bacon.

Judge for Yourself opened 35 years ago. Business has stayed steady, Elena says, thanks largely to the shuttering of other diners in town, a result of the area's wealthy population (why eat at a diner when you can get a proper brunch?) as well as of corporatization (there's now a Denny's about three miles up the road). But, owing perhaps in part to its central location, Judge for Yourself has managed to weather the gastronomic storm. Twenty-three years later, Elena still begins each day at 6:00 a.m., brewing coffee and setting the tables.

I ask Elena why she thinks people choose to eat at Judge for Yourself. What, in other words, makes this restaurant special? As I'm asking, a few other customers walk through the door. Elena is the only waitress there; I can't take up any more of her time. Before she leaves, though, she answers my question: "A lot of people come in here and I already know their orders. They feel at home."

I finish my cup of coffee and pay. As I'm leaving, I hear a familiar hum buzzing from the radio, a song that transports me, briefly, back to those trips to the diner with my dad: "I Second That Emotion," by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. A diner is a diner is a diner.

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Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.

Lead photo: A cup of coffee on the counter at Judge for Yourself Café. (Photo: Max Ufberg/Pacific Standard)

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