There is no dining spot more quintessentially American than a diner. Diners are greasy, chintzy, iconic, mythically beautiful locales. There’s a strange romance about them; they’re in just about every corner of the U.S., and no two are the same. Part of the charm is nostalgia. Diners first emerged on the scene in late 1800s New England, and hit their stride post-World War II. Even now, many retain a 1950s retro aesthetic (neon signs, a jukebox, stainless steel, Formica). Diner food is consistent, and so are the prices. In cities beyond Durango, people sit at the counter or in a cozy booth all night long.
There’s usually scant hints of ethnic spice or surprises, so diners are a picky eater’s dream. They excel at hamburgers, french fries, club sandwiches and breakfast foods like eggs, bacon and pancakes. The coffee is rarely great, but it’s always there. So is the transparent display case of cake slices and pie. Such unsophisticated meals are dependable like fast food restaurants – but diners are far more individual and diverse.
These establishments are oft-immortalized on film and in art, with varying connotations. On “Happy Days” or in the movie “Grease,” they’re cheerful spots where teenagers meet after school and bring dates to share a milkshake (with two straws). Sometimes they are markers of loneliness, as in Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks,” illustrating a diner and its occupants late at night. Many diners were historically built near factories operating 24 hours a day, so night shift workers had a place to eat. But the night shift is an isolated one, as Hopper’s painting proves; so diners were places of refuge for people awake long after bedtime, wandering the darkened streets. Even at the breakfast or lunch shifts, you’ll see a lot of single patrons.
While the definition of a diner can be subjective, we’ve used the following qualifiers: pedestal seats (swiveling stools), a counter (different from a bar), “greasy spoon” atmosphere (typically defined as a small, cheap restaurant specializing in fried foods), either late night or early morning hours and serving breakfast all day long. The following four Durango diners don’t stay open late (all are open for breakfast and lunch only) and none of them serve alcohol, but they each serve as vital beacons of Americana in our little Western town.
Durango Diner, 957 Main Ave.Durango Diner was named one of the 51 best morning meals in America and chosen as the breakfast representative for all of Colorado by Rachael Ray magazine. Gary Broad and his wife, Donna, have owned it since 1980, and before that, the business was owned by at least two other families. All the members of Gary Broad’s Durango family have worked there, and another current employee has a grandmother who worked in the diner 80 years ago. Broad believes his is the oldest restaurant in Durango. “We trace it back to when phones came in,” he said, pointing to an old pay phone that still hangs on the back wall. The diner is small but long (with a counter that stretches on forever) and very modestly decorated. Broad claims he hasn’t changed the decor since they opened, except to add new photos on the walls. Broad can’t remember names, but when he sees locals walking down Main, he knows exactly what their order is. “Guys don’t change what they eat – women change,” said Broad. “My wife doesn’t come home and I’ve changed the furniture.”
When are you open? Breakfast and lunch. I like having one crew per day, one shift. I like to be here when it’s open. You’re not gonna be a millionaire, so you might as well not kill yourself. It’s hard to do three meals.
Most popular dishes?The Cure. It’s potatoes, cheese, your choice of meat – sausage, bacon, ham, vegetables – then eggs on top and green chili on everything. We bottle our green chili (Durango Diner green chili) and sell it in about 400 supermarkets. I drive a shipment of it to Denver. Also, the huevos rancheros, which translates into “ranch eggs.” Beans, eggs, chili, tortilla.
What makes you unique?We also serve at the El Rancho. On weekends, we have waitresses dedicated to that. We take orders there, bring it back to the diner to make it, then carry it back to The Ranch. People sit and have beer or bloody marys in the mornings.
What’s great about the diner atmosphere? It’s very homey. All these pictures on the wall are mine; there’s a story to each one. All family and past employees. It’s a very personable place. A waitress once told me, ‘Our customers don’t go somewhere else – they just die.’ Our oven is 60 years old and we still don’t have a microwave. Do what you do good, and leave it alone at that.
Kassidy’s Kitchen, 171 Suttle St. #A (Bodo Park)Kassidy Byington and his wife Cheryl opened Kassidy’s six years ago. Their address is unusual, in Bodo Park behind the Comfort Inn rather than on the grid like our other three diners. Byington claims not doing dinner has a lot to do with their location: “We’re off the beaten path and there’s no signage on the highway,” he said. “It’d be difficult to get traffic by the restaurant for dinner.” Many customers are truckers (because Kassidy’s has a good parking lot). “BP, Red Cedar, those kind of guys,” said Byington. “People don’t really come from downtown; too many lights between us and them.” Kassidy’s also delivers within Bodo.
Most popular dishes?For breakfast, our skillets and breakfast burritos. For lunch, our chicken/bacon/ranch sub sandwiches. And burgers.
What sets you apart?We have some gluten-free items available, like our chilies and sauces. We focus on fresh food. Not saying the other diners don’t, but we have different clientele. Everything is done from scratch as much as we possibly can. We make our own dressings, chilies, gravies, sauces, all the pies. I see a lot more blue-collar workers, guys who are getting their hands greasy. Maybe more than some of the other diners in town do.
What’s great about the diner food/atmosphere? I like a diner because I know I’m going to get something that probably has a little more care put into it than a commercial restaurant. Most of the time, you know who’s going to be there when you go. You know who your waitress and cook is gonna be. Diners are like the last vestige of small-business ownership that has a lot of employees in it. That’s pretty important in society. I even seek out diners when I go traveling, to make sure I get that hometown feel.
Is there competition between the Durango diners? I’ve known all those people for 35 to 40 years. Me and Jerry from Cj’s go way back, I have high regard for him. We’ll help each other every once in a while if we need it. If he runs out of something, he can borrow it from me, and vice versa.
Cj’s Diner, 810 E. College Dr.Jerry Martinez has been the owner of Cj’s Diner for 16 years. “I close on Sundays because I go to church, so I don’t make my employees work it, either,” said Martinez. Cj’s does catering, which accounts for 40 percent of their business. “Word of mouth is our best advertising,” Martinez added. They also deliver.
What dishes are popular?Breakfast: The Mexican food, tortillas with eggs, hashbrowns, chili, meat.
What sets you apart?I have a reputation; I’ve been doing this for 43 years. I ran Laurie’s restaurant, a big family place where Doughworks is now. I was there for 28 years. And we’re huge supporters of Durango sports. This week we’re doing 80 burritos for the FLC football team.
What do you like about the diner atmosphere?My menu. It’s my own recipes. Even though I worked at a place for so long, I had my own idea of what I wanted. So I get to choose that stuff now. My restaurant is decorated with sports. I coached high school basketball and played, and my dad coached and played. So we have all this stuff going back to the ’40s. I can create my own atmosphere and not have to really answer to anybody.
Oscar’s Diner, 18 Town PlazaOscar’s is Durango’s ’50s throwback eating spot; there’s neon lights, checkered floors, glass blocks and a pie case on the counter. A toy train on a track up by the ceiling circles the small restaurant’s perimeter all day long, and the walls are decked with old Snowdown posters from years past. Paula and Bruce Berg have owned the diner for 35 years, and their daughter Kristi has been managing for nine of those. (Kristi essentially grew up in the diner, busing tables as a kid to save money). The restaurant’s owner before the Bergs had Oscar’s for 18 months and gave it the name. “When we purchased it, we decided to keep the name so we didn’t have to change the sign on the window,” said Paula. The other establishment used to serve Chinese food at night, which is why the long-mustached man on the Oscar’s ‘O’ logo looks Asian. “Back in the early ’80s, Durango was a sleepy town,” said Paula. “When we moved here from California, I was used to more of a fast pace. At first, people weren’t real welcoming to us, but after they saw how hard we worked, they liked us.”
Most popular dishes?Kristi: We’re famous for our green chili, homemade here. We’re known for our french toast, it’s unlike any other french toast anywhere. It’s my dad’s recipe, and it’s in a batter we make every morning. We grill and lightly fry it, so it’s kind of doughnut-like. It’s so good. Everybody really likes our hashbrowns. We’re known for our portions, they’re big and hearty.
Paula: People come from Denver to eat our French toast! And they like our Mex Brex, which is like a potato pancake that has green chilies on it, that we grill and top with eggs with sour cream and salsa. We’re also known for our big cinnamon rolls.
What sets you apart from other diners in town? We’re really fortunate in Durango, we have 70-plus restaurants and all of them do a good job. We have more of a West coast flair, as far as fresh fruit and things like that on our menu. And we’re an authentic ’50s diner; that was our original theme. It’s a mom-and-pop, and those are becoming more rare. Chains are taking over. It’s a difficult business to be in.
What do you love about diner atmosphere and food?Kristi: There’s a vibe about a diner; the coffee cups, the hustle and bustle, the hearty food, everybody knows your name. Our waitresses adopt our customers like family. And my favorite meal is breakfast, so I love that you can get variations of the simple bacon and eggs in diners, and everybody has their own take on it.
Paula: Our customers are like family. There’s people who come in, and before their butts even hit the chair we have their food out to them. We know what they eat, that they like their toast burnt, how they like their eggs. Some of my customers have been coming for 35 years, it’s crazy. I’m a child of the ’50s, so I have a real connection to Americana. It’s part of an era, post-WWII, where our economy and country was booming. All these guys came home from war and had lots of children. It was a special time in America. Our food is reminiscent of that – it’s comfort food. People want a warm bowl of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Eating a certain food takes you back to something you remember in your childhood. It’s not only about nourishing people – it almost nourishes their souls. Everybody needs comfort in this world, it’s fast-paced and hectic, so people come in and chat about local politics or local construction projects. None of us want to go to our grave without having made a difference, and if we can make a difference in just one or two lives, that’s what it’s all about.