Once I found myself in one of those fake 1950s diners, seeking some solace in an era that I sorely regret not being a part of. I’ve always been able to imagine myself, complete with bouncing ponytail and poodle skirt, sharing a malted with my beau in a place much like this-one with chrome spinning seats at the counter, deep vinyl booths, and even a jukebox playing all the classic rock-n-roll tunes. But this chain restaurant was lacking something. Maybe it was the fact that the cook kept his apron impossibly clean from the hamburger grease, or that mohawks and Nikes had no place in that long-gone era. More likely, the place lacked the feeling that it was real. It didn’t have the smells and feel of a genuine “mom-and-pop” hamburger joint. My willing suspension of disbelief grew thinner because I knew this place had been reproduced in cookie-cutter fashion all over the U.S. It’s difficult to recreate something 50 years after its glory days.
A Dying Breed
Amazingly, some of the original “mom-and-pop” hamburger joints in the south have survived the wage of McDonald’s warfare over the years, though they are a dying breed. Arkansas still holds these pockets of the past in many cities and tiny towns. Whenever my family took trips through Arkansas, I was always the one who would spot some faded sign like “Joe’s Burger Shack” or “What-A-Burger” and plead to stop there rather than the old standby, McDonald’s. The advantages to eating at an independent burger joint included a menu that could not be duplicated anywhere in the world, as well as ambience. I was drawn to the cracked and faded seats, the wobbly tables, and the static sound of oldies coming out of an old boom box. I liked watching the cook/owner/waiter prepare my heaping order of French fries. Heat lamps were a sin in places like these.
It’s the Same Ole Thing
Somewhere along the way, people began to identify with the homogeny of chain fast food restaurants. There became a certain satisfaction with knowing that wherever you were, Burger King would look the same and taste the same. But whenever I stepped into a Burger King, I stopped being able to remember which city I was in. I find it disconcerting that food can be cloned in some sort of formula, so that chicken sandwiches everywhere have the same texture, taste, and feel.
No two independent burger joints look the same, but most of them look much the way they did 50 years ago. Many are still owned by the same families who opened them. Rather than being run by a staff of apathetic teens, “mom-and-pop” places are usually under control of one or two people who actually care if they give the wrong order to the wrong customer, people who are never too busy to stop and chat about the weather or the local sports team. They serve as surrogate parents eager to fatten you. Because they devote their time to perfecting each order, the food tastes better; it is delivered with love.
Interest in these vintage relics has faded with time, the same way drive-in movies have petered out. The few restaurants that are left stand as a testimony of a certain stubbornness to conform to the plastic, manufactured future. They are kept alive by people like me, not necessarily people who lived through the 1950s, but people who find a certain nostalgia in a place that still cares about its customers, that does not mass-produce its food, and that doesn’t strive to get it out in 30 seconds or the food is free. These restaurants give us, the society always on the go, the opportunity to slow down, look around, and enjoy a good meal.