Back in the day — and I'm talking way back in the day — there was only one word to describe a place where a stranger could stop, sit down and, for two bits or so, get something to eat. That word was "restaurant" — based on the word restaurer and taken, like everything else would be forever after, from the French. In fact, a smart fellow named Boulanger opened the forerunner of the modern restaurant, a soup spot in Paris, in 1765, and many other smart fellows followed in his footsteps, offering hearty and fortifying soups to the masses — sometimes from carts on the street, sometimes from storefronts along Paris's less savory rues. Then in 1782, the Grande Taverne de Londres opened — in Paris, again — and was perhaps the first restaurant to offer such niceties as tables, chairs, menus and fixed operating hours. It was opened and operated by Antoine Beauvilliers, who was (surprise, surprise) a food writer of some renown. Yeah, that's right: Only a decade or so after the first restaurants appeared, some smart boy realized he could make a buck writing about them. Beauvilliers would later go on to cut the path that nearly every food writer who came after him has walked, with a book about proper conduct in the kitchen and the formalized rules of cookery called L'Art du Cuisinier. In it, he viciously took apart Marie-Antoine Carême — the world's first celebrity chef, more or less — by insulting the massive pièces montées for which Carême had become famous. A nice little slap-fight followed, with Carême claiming that his culinary art provided "food for mind and heart," and Beauvilliers shooting back that "the cook's job was not to please the eye but the palate; not to fill one's leisure but one's belly pleasurably," at least according to Stephen Mennell's All Manners of Food. Basically, Beauvilliers called Carême a dandy and a ponce, thereby also becoming the world's first restaurant critic. Carême retaliated by becoming fantastically rich and famous and then dying young — a classic tactic of the French.
The Grande Taverne de Londres was lauded by none other than Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who called it "the first to combine the four essentials of an elegant room, smart waiters, a choice cellar, and superior cooking." That essentially codified what a restaurant was going to be for the rest of history. Adjectives aside, it has to be a room where food and booze are available, brought to you by someone other than your mother. And for a very long time, "restaurant" was the only word that described every possible permutation of those four essentials. "Bar" (or "pub") covered everything else — anywhere there was booze, a roof and service, but no food to speak of beyond a pickled egg.
Everything was so much simpler then.
Today, a plethora of eating options present themselves. Restaurants have become subsumed by a flood of bistros and boîtes and cafes and osterias. There are salumerias and delis, chop houses and taverns, trattorias, eateries, gastropubs and brasseries. And while, yes, many of these words have their own particular definitions (a "bistro" is a small, informal room where simple cuisine can be had alongside selections of vin ordinaire; a "brasserie" is a somewhat finer, more formal establishment differentiated from a bistro primarily by the beer taps behind the bar and a regular menu handed out by servers who know to take their fingers out of their noses before stepping onto the floor), restaurateurs often ignore them when labeling their places. Particularly when the places they're labeling reflect the unique cultural variation on Beauvilliers's original restaurant that is the American diner.
What makes a diner distinctive? What separates it from the bistro or the tavern or the rathskeller? And what qualities, precisely, must a place have in order to legitimately call itself a diner? Seeing as I have spent more time in diners than anywhere else, this is a topic on which I consider myself something of an expert. I know from diners. They are my natural habitat.
The same goes for Paul Yi, a member of a Korean restaurant family and a man with a deep understanding of American cuisine. Last year he opened Silver Creek Diner with his wife, Diana, in the corner slot of an otherwise unremarkable strip mall hidden amid the twists and turns of the business parks and parking lots near Park Meadows. It's a location that's swallowed at least two restaurants in my memory — the Dragonfly Cafe and Cheesy Jane's — but that did not deter this couple from opening their own place there.
"Since I was little, I worked in American restaurants," Paul Yi told me. He's been in the States now for almost forty years, having done time in Washington, D.C., before coming to Denver, running several restaurants in both places — family joints, mostly, other diners, a deli in the DTC. All of them have served "American food," because American food is what Paul knows best. It's what he loves. "I'm not trying to do haute cuisine," he said, then laughed.