"When the Dodgers moved to California, my grandparents moved, too, opening a New York-style diner in 1960," says Harry Rudolph, the third-generation owner of Harry's Coffee Shop in La Jolla.
It's the kind of great classic diner where you can count on affordable comfort food like steak and eggs, stacks of flapjacks, and a handmade milkshake. These diner menus often list more than 50 items and may reveal Greek or Jewish heritage (a spinach pie here, a hearty Reuben sandwich there). There's a common décor too, of stainless steel, neon, mahogany, and chrome that looked cutting-edge in the 1940s and now feels retro.
Diners certainly pluck a chord of American nostalgia. They seem to belong to our culture and to help define it. Like family recipes and apple pie. Like baseball and Elvis. In fact, you can likely find some combination of those things inside the best diners. In the end, maybe a single definition isn't necessary. Let's just say, we know a diner when we see it.
We've seen these diners -- and you should seek them out, too, whether in Jackson, MS, or Manhattan.
More from Travel + Leisure:
America's Best Places to Eat Like a Local
America's Coolest New Diners
New York's Top Restaurants
America's Best Cities for Pizza
Take the T+L 2013 America's Favorite Cities Survey!
See More of America's Best Diners Opened as a drugstore/soda fountain, Brent’s has been serving Jackson pimento cheese and egg and olive sandwiches since 1946. The current owner restored the classic feel of the place to such a degree—teal and white accents, Formica counters, and hanging soda fountain lights—that the producers from the recent blockbuster The Help filmed two scenes here. Stop in for the new Sunday brunch and a classic cherry phosphate drink. facebook.com/brentsdrugs Photo: Courtesy of Brent's Drugs
See More of America's Best Diners This joint is swimming with antiques, from the register—which delights guests because it goes up only to $5.99—to old waffle makers, pans, and juicers on the shelves. The tables have built-in 1950s jukeboxes, and there are larger, Seeburg copper ones from the ’40s as well. The menu is a mix of old and new, with classic hand-dipped milkshakes selling just as well as the recently added stuffed waffles. Savory ingredients like bacon and cheese or sweet ones like chocolate and walnuts are poured directly into the batter and come combined hot off the iron. itstopscoffeeshop.com Photo: Courtesy of It's Tops Coffee Shop
See More of America's Best Diners Mickey’s is a registered landmark; countless films and TV shows have been shot inside the car built by the Jerry O’Mahony Dining Company. Saks Fifth Avenue even sold a snow globe featuring Mickey’s. In the ’50s, the joint got a couple of jukeboxes and began serving hand-dipped malts, but not much else has changed. “Our hash browns come with two ingredients—lard and chopped potatoes,” quips owner Eric Mattson’s daughter, Melissa. “You add your own salt.” You’ll also get “salt” from the waitresses, whom The New York Times once tagged as “ornery.” But the syrup on the secret-recipe pancakes sweetens the diner experience, which overall is as classic as it comes. mickeysdiningcar.com Photo: Jerry Huddleston
See More of America's Best Diners Marylou Monroe and her husband, Sonny, have been married for 52 years. If you ask her, she’ll tell you she always knew Sonny would own his own place one day. They bought Blue Benn in 1978, offering an eight-page menu ranging from eggs and home fries to a whopping burrito. You’ll find the old diner motif intact here, and also a sense of family. The newest waitress tied on an apron 12 years ago, and in a town of only 6,500, everyone knows everyone at Blue Benn. Another welcome familiar element: the longstanding Indian pudding, baked custard with cornmeal, molasses, pumpkin, and spices, served warm with a scoop of ice cream. facebook.com/pages/Blue-Benn-Diner-Inc Photo: Jennifer A. Bremer
See More of America's Best Diners Original owner Claude Sparks’s hamburgers cost a nickel back in 1937. While the price has changed, the recipe hasn’t. Fresh ground meat with minced onion is seared on a flat griddle and served up on a steamed bun. The diner seats only 11; on a Friday night, more than 75 people will wait inside and out. Quaint, unassuming, and no-nonsense, Town Topic is exactly the definition of a diner. “It’s breakfast all day,” explains Claude’s grandson and current owner, Scott Sparks. “It’s burgers and grease and sometimes-snarky waitresses. We have all of that.” Baked Golden Boy pies round out the bygone experience. towntopic.com Photo: Lynn Sparks
See More of America's Best Diners This favorite on the North Fork is open only April through December, but those months have sustained it since the 1950s. Come spring, regulars flock here for plates of lobster salad, fresh flounder, seasonal soft-shell crab, and 19 wines by the glass—many from Long Island vineyards. Heartier dishes include mashed turnips and the cook’s roast duck (the fowl comes from a 100-year-old farm just across the road). While founder Wanda Wittmeier turned operations over to her sons John and Otto years ago, she regularly rolls silverware in the back booth while visiting with friends. modernsnackbar.com Photo: John Wittmeier
See More of America's Best Diners Gardiner is on the National Register of Historic Places, and A1 occupies a prime spot on Main Street. It’s gone by several names since opening in ’46; the current owners rebranded in 1988, choosing the name from a neon sign they hung inside. The rest is preserved: sunburst stainless steel, pink marble countertops, blue and black tiles, and original fixtures. “People think this was a train car, but it was built as a diner,” says co-owner Michael Giberson. The massive menu has room for soups, hash, fried fish, New England clam chowder, and a grass-fed, locally raised burger. Everything is from scratch and, when possible, local. Some waitresses have worked here for more than four decades. a1diner.com Photo: Michael Giberson
Follow Travel + Leisure on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TravlandLeisure