Do you want the usual?

I grew up in a small village in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Newberry never had an abundance of news, so the local newspaper usually revolved around small town situations. The date for the fireworks on the 4th of July or how the high school team did at the track meet. The secondary news was often being told by word of mouth. No need to fact check, you only need to know if the person you’re speaking to is a reliable source. In a small town setting, everyone knows what’s happening in town, even the info that doesn’t make the newspaper. This information was exchanged at large gatherings or when friends would meet at places like diners.

My grandfather was an avid patron at the local diner. I remember like clock work, my grandpa would go down to the Village Inn restaurant each day (sometimes twice) to have coffee with his friends. I never actually knew the depth of the conversations that happened over coffee, only that information was passed at the time. Who knew what deep political conversation or religious irony would come up in their conversation. Either way, meeting twice a day, I would assume it wasn’t too controversial to the men involved. My grandfather would come back home and you could see that he was fulfilled with his local news for the day. He would come back knowing the deals happening on groceries at the local store or who was moving into town. His love for coffee was one thing, but I cant believe that his level of coffee affection was the top priority for his escapades. When he would visit us when I moved further away from Newberry, we would still find a place to go grab a coffee. I’m sure the mentality was different meeting with his 10 year old grandson versus his friends back home. You can imagine how much involvement I would have if he sprung up a debate about who to elect for president, George Bush or Bill Clinton. I’m sure his daily routine of making his way 5 miles down the road to sit with friends, played an important part in his life.

The traditional American diner was thought of by Water Scott, who quit his job and took a horse-pulled wagon and turned it into a sandwich shop for late night workers. You’ll see that most diners actually are 24 hour establishments because of this. It wasn’t until 1913, where an actual stationary diner was created. The idea quickly spread and had many variations over the years. Regardless of where you landed in the US, more than likely the city would have some type of a diner to visit. The food would stay pretty consistent with the local cuisine, and formed as an establishment that local people could come to for food and socialization.

In Seinfeld, the cast meets at the local diner. The significance of the location can be felt every time they ask for a meeting place. Not Monks (which is the actual diner name), but the coffee shop. When someone talks to a classification versus the actual name of a restaurant, you have to be in the know on what they are talking about. If not, you would have thousands of diners across New York to go to. The familiarization of the meeting place between characters brings it charm. The significance of Monks as a backdrop to their daily lives can be found in many episodes across the sitcoms journey. Stories about nothing, but rich in detail and portray the daily lives of Americans so well. Episodes involving the cast sitting at their booth going through who they are dating or the predicament they are currently in, or just sitting down to order a “big salad”. There needed to be a place for the cast to meet and gossip over trivial ideas and someones house is not usually common ground. What happens when the diner they love bans them and they have to go to another one? It feels different, it’s out of their comfort zone. It gets awkward and uncomfortable. “What do you mean there is no big salad?” The whole conversation between characters becomes awkward. They can’t focus on their daily lives, because they have such a strange feeling from being outside their realm.

I recently got into watching the show Yellowstone. In the show, Kevin Costner portrays the character of John Dutton. John Dutton is a stingy older man with a passion for ranching and his family. He stops at no cost to protect his way of life throughout the series. Kevin Costner as an actor, has always been one of my favorites. His simplicity of how he steps into his role and flawlessly plays the character amazes me. After numerous movies being cast as a cowboy, he fits the role perfectly. After binging through the first three seasons, I was brought to one of the last episodes of season 4. The elegant way that the write and director portray the scene is perfection. John Dutton enters a local diner that he doesn’t normally go to and random enough, his waitress from his normal diner is in there. She makes eye contact with him and gives a sly remark for cheating on her with another restaurant. He proceeds to take the insult and she offers him “his usual”. The interesting piece to the puzzle is that he looks around the diner for familiarity. He scans the room until he finds someone from his past that he did not want to see. His comfort for the place quickly dissipates. He walks over to the familiar face and has a brief interaction with him, leaving his meal on the counter, he walks out the door. Such a simple scene in a movie that captivated me so much. How quickly can something go from a new surrounding, to a familiar comfort zone, and back to an awkward encounter and exit? Well played by the director who obviously still knows the importance of a diner in American tradition.

The interesting thing is that Yellowstone is a recent show. The American diner has slowly started to die out and put to the side by coffee shops. Coffee shops that serve specialized drinks and reduce the amount of food being served. In the show, you see the significance when the director tries to portray the progression in town vs the old battalion. Kevin Costner goes to a diner for his breakfast and coffee, you would never see him at a speciality coffee shop. Times in the show where they have specialty coffee, it usually involves a traditional cowboy going in to order coffee, only to be confused about the menu and the options available. When you stroll through the coffee shop, you see a new trendy side of society. Vastly different from the cowboy way of life. The show so eloquently uses coffee shops as the progression that John Dutton is against. Yet interestingly enough, coffee shops have been around much longer than the traditional diner. It just so happens that if you compare the American diner, to the new speciality coffee shops, it’s more the American culture that shines through versus old tradition.

Coffee houses started as far back as the 15th century, and were known as gathering places. People would drink coffee, have conversations discussing the news and politics. They were actually known as schools of wisdom. Islamic coffee houses were even banned for a small amount of time, before people quickly decided to disregard the policy! It’s still an important part of the middle eastern culture. Whether it’s tea or coffee in the cup, they will still sit around enjoying, while discussing significant events in life.

Friends is a similar structure to Seinfeld, yet they become trendy with the introduction to a regular meeting place at a coffee shop versus a diner. It was a new movement at the time with the recent infatuation with Starbucks in America, the creators felt like it might be a bit too trendy for the show. They almost scrapped the idea, but stood with the concept and it turned out that it paid dividends. Little did they know how the idea would stick in the minds of people around the world. The coffee shop setting stood out as a new trend that differs with the old guard of a show like Seinfeld. There wasn’t a large menu or even a menu to grasp in their hands at all. There was still a sense of familiarity when the cast entered, often ordering “the usual”.

It’s where the significant events in Ross and Rachel’s life happened. The day she walked in with a wedding dress on, or the day that they got back together after a horrible breakup. The storyline often revolves around the cast being at Central Perk. The coffee shop has gotten to be so big itself, that there is extreme amount of paraphernalia created to show off your favorite place in Friends. There are now coffee shops, modeled after Central Perk.

Currently in society, it’s often a normal practice for people to meet at a coffee shop to conduct business. Whether it’s for an informal date, an interview, or even to use wifi and work. It’s become such a strong social hub. The great thing is that they are so comforting to visitors. The drinks have changed and become much more elaborate, but still the setting doesn’t change the significance of the meeting place. It’s such a simple phrase that has become a staple in our culture. Want to go grab a coffee?

I have some homework for you. Find a local diner that has been around for at least 20 years. Go in and grab a coffee and do some people watching. Make sure it’s early enough for you to see the locals. As you sit and drink your coffee, observe the interaction between people. The gestures they make as they greet each other for the first time in the morning. Is there a quick hi, how are you? Or is there a quick jab one liner to get a laugh out of the friend joining. When the waitress comes up, is it the usual? You’ll see that the tradition is still strong with the diner in American culture.

Both settings are important to the American way and you can see the significant difference when you enter a diner versus a coffee shop. The feeling is quite different and you see where tradition collides with a progressive movement. A diner with a more traditional approach brings a different type of clientele versus the coffee shop. Yet they both serve a purpose in society. They are a movement for socialization. They bring people together to a setting where they can talk about daily life or whatever else they have on their mind. You can always see the difference if you look for it, but there is much more similarity when you dig deep to the root. Whether you prefer to step foot into a coffee shop or enjoy the tradition of the diner, you’ll enjoy a rich history of togetherness.

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I've lived several places in the United States. Born in Michigan, lived several years of my life in Florida and currently in California. I was enticed with travel from an early age. I've traveled around most states in the US and have ventured across Europe. As my love of travel continues, my passion grows deeper with learning about new cultures and what makes them unique. Travel with me as I gather my thoughts on travel and experience the world through my lens.

5 thoughts on “Do you want the usual?

  1. Howdy. Are you familiar with Horn and Hardart automats? They were unusual eateries in Philadelphia and New York City. There’s a recent documentary , The Automat, about them. It’s a real good doc. Neil S.

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      1. They had coin-operated compartments. You’d insert coins into slots, then open little compartment doors and pull out the food. You’d do this separately for each food item. Automats were cool places.

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