The Penn Yan Diner
The old-fashioned diner, once a feature of almost every town, is becoming an endangered species. Roadside a journal "devoted to the appreciation and preservation of a truly unique American institution, the diner," lists only 49 in Western New York, including five that have recently closed. One that is flourishing, however, is located on East Elm Street in Penn Yan, approaching its 70th birthday.
The diner came to Penn Yan in 1925. The Penn Yan Democrat, April 10, 1925, noted, "Penn Yan is well supplied with eating places. The vacant lot east of the Masonic Temple has been rented to Byron and Lena Legters, who are planning to install a Galion Dining Car which is to be placed on a concrete platform so the entrance will be at street level. They will also build a concrete block kitchen below the diner." This diner, like others of the period, was probably shipped by rail and moved to its permanent site on its own wheels. By definition a diner is "a prefabricated structure with counter service, hauled out to its site." The Penn Yan Diner is a good example of the "improved" diners of the post World War I period.
The Penn Yan Diner was built by the Galion Dining Car Company in Galion, Ohio. This was evidently a short-lived company about which little is known. Richard J. S. Gutman, the leading authority on diners and author of American Diner Then and Now, gives information on 66 manufacturers of diners, but mentions only, that information about the Galion Dining Car Company is "elusive."
According to Gutman, the average diner of the period was thirty feet long and ten and a half feet wide. The Penn Yan Diner seems to have been somewhat longer and wider but still with the typical trolley car shape, the long counter with stools in front and the food prepared and served from behind the counter. The original entry was a sliding door in the front which is now closed. Windows along the front brought in light and opened the diner for passersby to see in.
In 1938, the diner was purchased by Odell Jones who ran it, with his wife Alice, for the next seventeen years. In the 1940s he made extensive renovations, upgrading the main diner and kitchen, and adding a dining area to seat 18 people at tables and a new entrance with a small glass-block vestibule. Pictures showing the interior of the diner after renovation may be seen on the walls of the diner today.
Another reminder of the World War II era are two framed OPA posters on the wall. The Office of Price Administration operated from 1942-46 and set the maximum prices that could be charged for nearly everything that was sold, including lunchroom meals and sandwiches. The regulations state that quality and quantity were required to be maintained and that actual selling prices could be lower, but no higher, than those listed.
A ground beef sandwich was priced at 25¢, a cheeseburger at 30¢. The cheapest sandwich was an egg sandwich at 20¢, and the most expensive were hot beef, hot pork, or hot turkey sandwiched at 55¢, or 65¢ if served wih potatoes.
Dinners cost 95¢ for most items. A breakfast of two eggs and toast was 35¢. Three wheatcakes cost 25¢ or 70¢ with bacon. Juice was 15¢. Coffee, tea or milk was 10¢. A piece of pie was 15¢, with ice cream another 15¢.
Odell Jones was ready to retire by 1949, but a couple to whom he sold the business could not make a go of it and he had to take it back. It was finally sold, in 1955, to John and Inez Quenan who ran the diner successfully for the next 25 years. John Quenan had been chef at the Benham Hotel and was chef at Checquers in Geneva when he took over the Penn Yan Diner. The Quenans operated the diner until 1980 when they sold it to Lyman Beecher, the present owner. Beecher was trained by John Quenan and has carried on the tradition that is characteristic of American diners of serving tasty, nourishing food at modest prices.
Lyman Beecher says he does not know what connection, if any, he has to his famous namesake, but his father is Lyman, Sr. and he has a one-and-a-half-year-old son who is Lyman III. The diner is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Lyman comes to work between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. and makes the pies for which the diner is famous. He usually has six or seven different kinds of pie, making a decision on which to choose difficult. The food is standard diner fare. The weekly specials include pot roast on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, meat loaf on Wednesdays, creamed codfish on Fridays, chicken and biscuit and baked ham on Saturdays. Behind the counter, Cindy, Cheri and Heidi greet the regulars by name, but also have a pleasant, friendly greeting for strangers as well.
The Penn Yan Diner is carrying on a tradition that began in Providence, Rhode Island as a horse-drawn lunch wagon in 1872. According to Richard J. S. Gutman, the diner is an American invention that became an American institution. The period just before and after World War II," he wrote, "was indisputably the diner's golden age, when the landscape was dotted with six thousand of them, all vying to satisfy the appetites of Americans taking to the road."
After a period when diners closed by the hundreds, there is a revival of interest in them. "Abandoned ones are being rescued and restored, and new old-style diners are being ordered from the same manufacturers who used to build them."
In June, more than 140 diner enthusiasts organized as the Society for Commercial Archeology, met in Frazer, Pennsylvania, to listen to scholarly papers and to visit and photograph the diners in the area.
The history of the rise and fall and revival is recorded, with lots of illustrations, both in color and black and white, in Gutman's American Diners Then and Now, published this year as a Harper Perennial book.
A unique feature of the Penn Yan Diner is a collection of motto plaques mounted over the counter that run almost its entire length. These fall into the category of folklore themselves and are worth reproducing:
Once I Thought I Was Wrong