“The South doesn’t have any true diners.” It’s a bold declaration I’ve heard time and again from people who, like me, moved from the Northeast to Atlanta. The irritation in their voices is tinged with disappointment. Even after 30 years here, I sometimes find myself longing for the diners of my youth growing up in southern Connecticut.
What if I told you the South does have diners — you just know these establishments as Waffle Houses, meat and threes, Southern cafeterias like Piccadilly and the Magnolia Room, and Atlanta institutions like the Silver Skillet? There, diner classics like patty melts, club sandwiches, and loaded fries cozy up to Southern cousins like fried chicken and catfish, buttermilk biscuits and gravy, creamy grits, and country ham. Bottomless coffee is a given.
Don’t get me wrong, I love old-school Atlanta diners like the Majestic on Ponce, and have found myself pouring into a booth at Landmark Diner in Buckhead after a late night, guzzling black coffee while eating piles of spaghetti, taking down a cheeseburger, or indulging in Oreo cheesecake. But there’s something about the Southern diner that captured my heart.
I moved to Atlanta in 1995 after graduating from college. Like many recent grads then, plentiful job opportunities and affordable housing drew me to Atlanta. I’ve been coming to Atlanta and its suburbs since I was a baby to visit my mother’s family here and in neighboring Alabama, where she grew up.
Despite family ties, I was still homesick for Connecticut and everything I left behind.
A coworker at my first job in Atlanta — a fellow transplant — sensed my homesickness and remedied it with a trip to the Waffle House near our office. It became a haven for me in those first few months as a newly minted Atlantan. I soon discovered places with similar familiarity like Java Jive, Eats, and the Silver Skillet, and restaurants like Anna Lee’s Southern luncheonette in Roswell and meat and threes including Matthew’s Cafeteria in Tucker and Alpha Soda in Alpharetta. Later, newer restaurants such as Home Grown in Reynoldstown took up the Southern diner mantle. None were called a diner, but they sure felt like them.
So what defines a diner in the South?
“Diners are all about familiarity, reliability, and comfort, and so is Waffle House,” photographer and documentarian Micah Cash says. For four years, Cash criss-crossed the South snapping pictures of the region’s changing landscape through the windows of various Waffle Houses. His project resulted in two volumes of “Waffle House Vistas” for publication the Bitter Southerner.
“I received a lot of emails from people who told me my photos picked up on this sort of equality aspect of Waffle House for them, where everyone is treated the same,” Cash says. “For some people coming from hard childhoods, Waffle House became a safe space, where they could sit for 30 minutes, eat an affordable meal with hot coffee, and think about their next move. No judgement.”
Some folks say a diner is a hodgepodge of inexpensive, unfussy dishes on a menu as long as your arm, that shouldn’t fit together, yet somehow do. For others, it’s the rough-and-ready design that comes alive when plastic booths and Formica counters fill with an eclectic collection of people from all walks of life. Shouts of “order up” from cooks calling to unfazed servers who’ve seen it all, intermingle with conversations, rustling newspapers, and the din of the street beyond the entrance. Meats, pats of butter, and hash browns sizzle on the griddle behind the counter. You come as you are, already knowing your order and taking comfort in the promise of hot coffee — and maybe a slice of cake, even at breakfast.
A diner is all of this, complemented by our fierce loyalty to them. Don’t disparage someone’s favorite diner, because there will be words.
For those of us living in the South, these same sentiments ring true for our favorite Southern cafe, meat and three, or Waffle House (yes, people have favorites.) You might get a hug from the owner, or a “How y’all doin’” with a wave when you walk in as a regular at a Southern diner.
“I think of diners as neighborhood spots in the South, part of the fabric of a community. Hospitality is key,” Steven Horwitz says, who co-owns Java Jive on Ponce de Leon Avenue with his wife, Shira Levetan.
Java Jive opened in 1994 on a very different, grittier Ponce than what newer residents to Atlanta see today. But those fluffy biscuits, eggy breakfast plates like the Sante Fe scramble or the Greek omelet, and specials like gingerbread waffles continue packing the retro dinette tables at Java Jive each week.
Horwitz and Levetan have customers who’ve been regulars since day one.
“Even in a big city like Atlanta, we know our regulars by name and worry when we don’t see them for a while,” says Horwitz. “It’s great when they finally return. We know their orders even before they tell us. I’ve had people say to me they were having a bad week and came here to have a quiet breakfast and left recharged. That’s what comfortable places like Java Jive offer communities in South. It goes beyond food.”
We need to embrace what makes diners special in the South, and get over the fact that most of these restaurants are not in an old railroad car, decked out in shiny chrome and neon, or sandwiched between two New York City mid-rises. Diners transcend location.
The ties that bind a Northern diner to its Southern kinfolk have always been there. The DNA of a diner is clear as day to me now, seen in the regulars who frequent such places and the comforting familiarity of the surroundings, the food, the sounds, and the smells. A Southern diner is just called something else down here, and that’s okay.