And few have lasted as long. Estimates peg the ultimate output of the Jersey (and New York and Massachusetts) diner-construction companies at around 10,000 units. There were discount models that were more lunch stands than proper diners -- just six stools, a counter and a flat grill -- and deluxe versions sporting everything from inlaid neon and coffin freezers to pulsing Ming the Merciless spires. These diners went everywhere. Every small town seemed to have one, back in the day when wheat-field crossroads and Midwestern Greyhound stations pulsed like hot, bright UFOs in the night, like landed motherships calling out to the faithful, ready to return them to the planet Formica.
But today, a good count puts the number of surviving (not operating, just surviving) vintage diners at around 3,000. Davies is one. It's listed on the National Historic Register and myriad websites that catalogue diner art and diner food and diner neon and diner signage like the gigantic cowboy at Davies, which was erected right about the time the Chuck Wagon was opening for business. The diner has outlasted several owners and has been in the possession of Dwayne Clark for decades. The patio out front is newer, but the inside is more or less original: a piece of American history as honest as a burger and fries, as real as heartburn, as strange as a fever dream at six in the morning when the sun is still struggling to rise and the recovering nighthawks crowd the counter. In the light, there's something magic about a place that wears its past so well, that knows the names of all its regulars, that has outlived so many of them and gathered their stories into the collective memory. And at night, when everything has gone dark, there's something almost gothic about that same place, like ghosts in the chrome and an ache for the untouchable that's gone missing over the years.
Across town, Rosie's Diner services a mostly transitory clientele, making serious bank on the tourist trade flowing in from the hotels that surround it and on the campy replication of a history that it does not necessarily own. At a distance, Rosie's is just another one of those awful, '50s-style nostalgia joints, a giant, shining, diner-shaped pimple tucked in a parking lot behind an Applebee's with a view of nothing but strip mall. It's a spot I'd driven by a hundred times without ever once thinking of stopping. I'd guessed it was a chain. I'd imagined waitresses in poodle skirts and a burger called "The Big Bopper" served without even a trace of irony.
And, as is so often the case, I was wrong. Well, mostly wrong. True, this Rosie's technically has no history. It is all of five years old, and was one of two Rosie's opened in Colorado and soon acquired by Great American Restaurant Properties -- a parent company that operates the Bennett's Bar-B-Que franchise. But Rosie's was inspired by a Rosie's diner in New Jersey that dates from the '40s, and, like Davies, was built in Jersey (Oakland, New Jersey, to be specific) -- by Paramount Modular Concepts, a company that custom-makes modern diners -- and shipped whole to Aurora in much the same way that Davies made the long trip west by rail fifty years ago. What's more, it was recently sold to an independent owner, Genessee Elinoff, who thought she could make a go of it without corporate support.
And from the looks of things, she can. Rosie's is slammed during the breakfast and dinner rushes. It hosts cruise-in nights for classic-car cultists on Wednesdays, opening up the parking lot to a generation of restored 'Vettes and Fairlanes. It serves colossal portions of food for prices so low I can't quite figure out how it makes any money. The floor staff all wear Hawaiian shirts (which is only slightly better than poodle skirts), serve a fantastic malted milkshake, and warm the syrup for the pancakes -- a courtesy that, in the pantheon of customer service, I consider to be just below free blow jobs for regulars in terms of making a fella feel special.
The kitchen here makes great french fries, awful macaroni and cheese that tastes like cold noodles in Cheez Whiz, an excellent pot roast and a loose, almost silky meatloaf that it throws down in huge slabs on Texas toast for a great sandwich that seriously rivals the best meatloaf sandwiches I've had anywhere outside my own kitchen. And it, too, does chicken-fried steak -- for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- and does it well. The steaks are a bit thinner than those at Davies, but you get two of them stacked one on top of the other, which more than makes up for the difference in weight. The gravy at Davies is thick and sticky and homemade. The gravy at Rosie's is thick and sticky and studded with shreds of sausage; it's such an idealized version of a truck-stop white that I want to believe it comes from some centralized sausage-gravy production facility, shipped out once a month in a tanker truck and pumped into tanks hidden on the roof. But it's actually made every day in Rosie's kitchen, just like the pancake batter and the pot roast and the pie.