I first came across Dinette Diner in 2007, when there was an auction for one of their original advertising pamphlets on ebay. I didn’t win the auction but saved the (low quality) images and promptly forgot about them. Mike Engle turned me back on to Dinette Diner a couple of weeks ago and I started researching. A lot of my research overlaps with his, so big credit goes his way. This is also still very much a work in progress- so readers, if you know anything about this company, I’d love to hear it. Lastly, there are some great photos out there that I have linked to, so be sure to check them out. Without further ado- Dinette Diner.
The Dinette Diner Company was a subsidiary of Spillman Manufacturing, a North Tonawanda, New York firm which made carousels. They launched their line of “Dinette Diners” in 1930, opening their prototype at 107 Main St., North Tonawanda.
Shortly after, they opened a second diner on 42nd St., New York City. A separate Dinette Diner corporation was organized nearby with offices in the Bowery Bank Building, 110 east 42nd, New York. They hired on Mr. C.A. Dann, “a man who has probably sold more dining cars than any one individual in the country” as the sales manager for the company.
The styling of their diners was very unusual for the time period, and their construction methods and materials were somewhat unconventional. What may jump out at you immediately is the exterior- it doesn’t look like a diner. Where’s the enamel? Where’s the stainless? Where’s the barrel or monitor roof? No, instead of streamline moderne, “the structure is of the English cottage type with a roof of variegated autumn shades with heavy rolled eaves. The exterior walls are of grey stained shingles. The windows, beautiful indeed, are of the cottage casement type, opening out, and with diamond ground design.”
The interior had much more of a standard diner look about it, but with what was, for the time, a huge width. Like Bixler and Rochester Grills, Dinette Diners built their diners in four foot “slices”, which were shipped in a box car or truck to the site. As such, they could be wide enough for booths, and the length of the diner was not limited by transportation. This idea had been done before, by the Fremont Metal Body Company, a precursor to Bixler, as early 1925. But it still represented a huge technical advantage over what was coming out the big factories of the day.
The interior walls and floors were covered in linoleum, with a barrel vault ceiling, with beams at each of the section seams. Interior woodwork was gumwood with a walnut stain.
“The Dinette has seating capacity for 30 persons, 14 at the counter and 16 at the end and side tables. The tables are of walnut with two tone “Lino” tops having brown centers and jasper green borders. The chairs have hat racks, green leather upholstered seats and are of the low back design.
The counter is of table height with a wide overhang on the front edge so that one sits close to the eating top without having to bend over to his food. The counter is raised off the floor by porcelain legs, providing plenty of toe room underneath. One sits at the counter exactly as is customary at one’s own table. No balancing on foot rests or hunched up limbs. In addition this type of counter is the last word in sanitation, permitting free circulation of air and eliminating the usual dirt and vermin traps. The counter stools have apple green porcelain bases with green leather upholsterd tops. The front of the counter is finished in “Formica” panels of ivory with contrasting pillars and trim in modernistic color and design.
Between the ceiling and the roof is a 30 inch air space, ventilators opening into it from the ceiling and a heavy duty exhaust fan at one end which ensures freedom from steam or odors- the air in the Dinette, by means of the above sysstem is completely changed every three minutes.”
Here is their prototype, from 1929-1930, which opened at 107 Main St., North Tonawanda, NY. A crisp photo of it, taken in 1941, can be found here. In the following years, an entrance was added to the left hand side, and it appears the center door was “deleted” In 1958, it moved to 346 River Road, North Tonawanda to make room for a new grocery store. In 1974, it changed to the Riverview Tavern. It is still at that location, operating as the Niagra River Yacht club, though it has been remodeled almost beyond recognition.
Another Dinette Diner was delivered to Sandusky, Ohio in 1939. It was opened by Fred W. May, who died a year later at the age of 74. The diner changed ownership and names, and operated as Hilda’s Diner or Hilda’s Dinette until 1962, when it was moved to River Avenue, Sandusky, and then to Fremont, Ohio. Some clear interior photos can be found here.
Some parting thoughts: Dinette Diner Company was building diners for the better part of a decade, so who knows how many they actually produced? Part of the issue is identification. Even as a diner-geek, if I were to have walked by one of these before this research, I wouldn’t recognize it as a diner. In restored to brand-new condition, I may give it a second glance, but I would never peg it as anything special from the outside. And then you start having remodelings over the years, like with the Tonawanda location in the ’40s/’50s , and even if you know what you’re looking for, it gets muddy. And then further renovation, like the current state of the Tonawanda location, and it’s all but impossible.
Dinette Diner was playing the environmental game of the ’60s/’70s thirty or more years before it came back into vogue. They were trying to outclass “dining car” builders by making their product more elegant, and at the same time more technologically advanced. Bigger, better, cleaner and more cozy.
Think of a 1960s diner in the same regard. More sections, wider, longer, better kitchen equipment. In so many ways more modern, but covered in stone, mansard roofs, and lit by wagon wheel chandeliers. Just like Diner Dinette, trying to revolutionize the diner industry while distancing themselves from the diner image.
Two more, courtesy Sandusky History http://sanduskyhistory.blogspot.com/2009/08/mays-dinette.html