Nothing hits the spot quite like a diner meal: a slice of pie and coffee, a filling meat and three, a sandwich done just right -- they're the ultimate American comfort food. But in recent years, many beloved diners have shuttered. Rather than stand by and watch, chefs and restaurateurs have moved in, freshened up the spaces and updated the menus. These days, there may be watermelon radishes in your egg salad, and the mac 'n' cheese might be made with farm-fresh cream. But the food is as appealing as ever, and the welcome is just as warm.
After you earn a Michelin star for your hip Thai restaurant in downtown Manhattan, what do you do next? For chef-restaurateurs Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, the answer was to open a cozy nine-seat diner. On their eclectic menu, Redding and Danzer update standards, such as juicy roast beef and Swedish meatballs, with unexpected sides, like rainbow chard and steamed artichokes. Their spicy twist on an egg salad sandwich bites back, thanks to a hefty dose of Tabasco.
Spicy Egg Salad Sandwich
Egg salad gets a fresh makeover with a trio of seasonal vegetables.
Sawyer & Co.
As a college student, Stephen Shallcross went to Arkie's Grill, a greasy spoon in Austin. When it closed in 2012 after having fallen into disrepair, Shallcross, who had since become a caterer, jumped at the chance to bring it back to life. He reopened the diner as Sawyer & Co., with retro-wood-paneled booths and mustard-yellow swivel stools paying stylish tribute to the restaurant's better days. The menu does, too, offering diner standbys like tender pot roast with carrots and potatoes as well as New Orleans-style signatures inspired by chef Happy Abdelbaki's Louisiana roots.
Broccoli with Herb Butter
Broccoli gets a delicious upgrade when smothered in garlicky herb butter.
Chef Ashley Christensen was in her early 20s, she brought her diner-loving dad to a restaurant in Raleigh where she'd once worked; it turns out he'd been a regular there back when it was a place called Poole's Luncheonette. In 2007, Christensen took over that very space and gave it back its old name. She kept the '50s-era Formica counters but added her own stamp with a seasonal comfort-food menu. Today, Poole's is a local institution with a forthcoming cookbook, Poole's: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner. What's modern about it? Amped-up takes on old favorites, like three-cheese macaroni "au gratin" and roasted chicken smothered in garlic.
Macaroni au Gratin
The secret to Poole's mac 'n' cheese? Lots of cheddar, Jarlsberg and Grana Padano!
Kristen Trattner and chef Monica May wanted to open a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles where folks could get delicious, homemade food in a casual setting. "There was almost nowhere to eat breakfast," Trattner says. In 2007, they started renovating an abandoned eatery and, while removing old plywood, uncovered a 1940s-era menu painted on the wall that touted 25-cent burgers and 30-cent chili. They kept the mural, and the history of the place complemented their riffs on diner mainstays, like quinoa-stuffed avocado with radicchio, a vegan take on the classic shrimp salad in an avocado half.
Stuffed Avocado Quinoa Salad
Move over meat -- this loaded salad is bulked up with quinoa.
Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar
Walk into Rosebud's 1940s-era dining car and you're greeted by edible Americana: a refrigerated case filled with banana cream, Key lime and other iconic pies. At first, you might think you're in any old diner, but menu items like Thai sticky ribs and BBQ pork flatbreads suggest otherwise. Local restaurateur Joe Cassinelli, with chef-partner John Delpha, took over the shuttered Rosebud Diner in 2014. When they reopened, they kept the classic look but updated the menu with kicked-up comfort food (like meat loaf smothered with poblano-onion gravy) and house-smoked barbecue that's won a national competition. Even cooler: the bar serves serious cocktails, like barrel-aged Negronis and bourbon-spiked coffee -- a most suitable match for a slice of pie.
Classic Key Lime Pie
Buy pie by the slice (with a bottomless cup of joe) or take a whole one home.