For pilgrimage-worthy breakfasts, late-night hangs, and one-of-a-kind regional dishes, look to these classics.

By David Landsel
Updated February 05, 2020
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Whether you grew up with late-night disco fries in the suburbs of New York City, huevos rancheros breakfasts in Texas, pancakes at camera-ready Los Angeles coffee shops, or broasted chicken dinners in the Midwest, most Americans have a diner, coffee shop, café, or lunch counter that they think of fondly, even if they haven’t been in years.

Typically no frills, and sometimes quite old, no matter what they look like or what you might call them, all of these places have one thing in common—good, honest food, served hot, fast, and cheap. That, and a damn good milkshake.

Kyle Monk / Getty Images

At a time of great change—and challenge—for restaurants in America, the diner is alive and well. We still love the simplicity, the authenticity; we love how they’re so often there for us, a safe harbor at the end of a long night, or even the morning after, with no judgments. But what makes a truly great diner? The very best of the genre are imbued with a great sense of place, a sense of belonging to the community it serves. Each should bring something unique to the table, while remaining accessible and welcoming to everyone.

Sarah Crowder

Naturally, our ideal diner centers around a well-worn, sparkling clean counter, preferably with a view of the grill; it should be known as having one of the best sit-down breakfasts in town; there should be slices of cake, or pie; it should be family owned and operated, going back as many generations as possible.

One of the most heartening things uncovered in our search was just how many new contenders have cropped up. The finer diner, as you will see from our list, is in no way a new idea, and while we’re all for more casual joints in our neighborhoods, serving up thoughtful, affordable cooking, we avoided including anything new, or unproven. (Call us in ten years, and we’ll talk.)

Sarah Crowder

Not that the classics were automatically safe from scrutiny, either—too often, former favorites have not stood the test of time, with more than a few addresses we’d have recently thought of as America’s best knocked off the list. And so, what are we left with? An ever-so-tightly curated collection of essentials—a list that hopefully will have diner-lovers nodding their heads, and everyone else curious to get out there, to see what true greatness looks like.

THE NORTHEAST

A1 Diner, Gardiner, ME

Too many visitors to Maine rush straight past this small town just south of Augusta on the highway, no doubt on their way to someplace sexier. Even if you did detour through Gardiner, population 5,700, give or take a few, blink at the wrong time and you could end up driving straight past one of New England’s most creative diners. Wedged between a rather unsightly building and a bridge approach, this wide-bottomed 1946 Worcester Lunch Car sits up on stilts, looking every bit the old rust bucket, but inside it’s all chrome and robin’s egg blue tile, and that counter, often fully occupied by those lucky enough to know that it’s always worth the short detour—that is, if the locals have even left room. For thirty years, long before reinventing the diner menu came into fashion, Mike Giberson and Neil Anderson made switching things up the new normal, a tradition that continues to this day in a safe pair of new hands (a former employee bought the place in 2018). Improved staples like high-quality burgers and freshly-cut fries are complemented by all kinds of things you won’t typically find on a diner menu; the ever-changing Sunday brunch offerings have recently included everything from shakshuka to carrot cake pancakes.

Blue Benn, Bennington, VT

Claim a booth inside this 1940s Silk City dining car, built all the way down in Paterson, New Jersey, pop a bit of change into your personal juke box, maybe play a little Glenn Miller, or Ray Charles, for the people—that is, if you can even get in the door. This family-operated (same one, since the 1970s) classic is one of Vermont’s most popular diners, so thank goodness, even though the place barely seats more than 40 on a good day, there’s a bit of room to wait inside, out of the typical New England chill. What to eat? Observe, hanging above you, all of those signs, row upon row of them, announcing the various specials and menu additions, fluttering gently like prayer flags. The vibe may be classic diner, but for a place this petite, there’s a lot of work going on behind the counter—tofu scrambles, excellent eggs Benedict, exemplary berry pancakes, pot roast dinners, and classic puddings for dessert.

Deluca’s Diner, Pittsburgh, PA

The absolute best thing about the Strip District is that it still stands. There are cities across the country that can only read about their old wholesale markets in history books, and here’s Pittsburgh, historically not terribly interested in what everyone else is up to, with its old-school butchers and delis, kitchen outfitters and coffee and tea exchanges, cannoli pushers, halal markets, and—who could forget—Deluca’s. A vital presence in the neighborhood since the 1950s, the city’s most iconic diner offers the full Pittsburgh experience in one cramped, badly lit room, filling up mornings with all of the people, from all over town, angling for a seat at the counter for piled-high plates. You don’t have to wake up early, if you don't want to—breakfast is served all day.

Dutch Eating Place, Philadelphia, PA

Don’t go looking for an actual diner car, but these twin horseshoe counters tucked inside the busy Reading Terminal Market are where you go to find some of the finest Pennsylvania Dutch cooking around, with a level of quality and efficiency exceeding many a traditional restaurant in the genre’s Lancaster County heartland. You’re not really a local until you’ve waited your turn to house a plate of the restaurant’s classic creamed chipped beef, easily one of the Mid-Atlantic’s most under-appreciated contributions to American breakfast—after scrapple, of course. Massive apple dumplings, served warm with a whomp of chilly whipped cream on the side, will make you forget all about cinnamon rolls. Of course, they do have those, as well.

La Bonbonniere, New York, NY

Manhattan’s West Village may have long ago turned into a playground for well-heeled types living out their fantasies of a New York City that sometimes feels as if it no longer exists—thank goodness, then, for the old-timers that have hung on, like this unabashed dive with the faded Coca-Cola signage, doing its level best to lower the tone, with a wink and a nudge, in a part of town where even major fashion houses can no longer afford retail space. For the better part of a century, this French-in-name-only counter joint has managed to stay just out of the spotlight, on many days content to feed its crop of regulars, as if we were in a small town, if that small town was full of people you’ve seen in movies.

Sarah Crowder

Miss Worcester Diner, Worcester, MA

Diner nerds know just how important this blue-collar New England town was to the rise of the culture. The city’s finest address, now on the National Register of Historic Places, began life as a show model for the Worcester Lunch Car Company, responsible for building some of the first diners in existence, right across the street. Things are very different now, around here, chances are the freight trains rumbling nearly directly overhead probably aren’t filled with locally-made products, but nothing has been able to shake the popularity of this lovable little establishment, where there’s barely enough room to turn around inside, and the die-hards line up out front in all weathers, very much like their counterparts would for barbecue in Texas. Speaking of meat—get the housemade corned beef hash.

Pete’s Grille, Baltimore, MD

The blame for one of the most persistent negatives of modern American diner culture—that all-too-frequent reliance on mediocre breakfast meats—can be pinned, at this point, almost squarely on the customer; asking for better, and then voting with our feet, is apparently one of the only ways to get better sausage, or bacon, or whatever, on the menu. Not that every place needs a wakeup call; this old-timer, bringing Baltimoreans of all kinds together for breakfast and lunch for as long as many of its patrons can remember, serves a pretty great pork sausage, and very fine bacon, plus scrapple, that Mid-Atlantic staple; order all three, plus, because balance is important, a portion of the creamed chipped beef, ladled over home fries.

Red Arrow Diner, Manchester, NH

Looking to give a certain presidential candidate a piece of your mind, before or after eating a bowl of some of the best chili served this far north? Come primary season—checks calendar—you’ll find a a whole range of try-hards parading through Manchester’s favorite 24-hour hangout, glad-handing “real” Americans and pretending to eat hash browns; the rest of the year, this is just another terrific diner, one patronized more than a few times by native son Adam Sandler, who has featured the Red Arrow in at least two of his movies. A fixture since the 1920s, the flame flickered ever so briefly in the 1980s—since then, the place has mostly been jumping, even spawning a couple more locations. For nostalgic purposes, downtown’s still your best bet.

Summit Diner, Summit, NJ

From one of the finest Taylor ham (pork roll), egg, and cheese sandwiches served in the Garden State—on a very good hard roll, we’ll add—to those exemplary plates of corned beef hash, the breakfasts have certainly played a role in making this New Jersey’s oldest diner, at it since the 1920s. In a state known for super-sizing the diner, this diminutive dining car just across the street from a busy suburban train station stands out visually, as well, particularly in la-di-da Summit, one of the more civilized bedroom communities in the New York commuter belt. Sit at the Italian marble counter (a beautiful relic from the 1930s, when the original dining car was last replaced) and scour the menu for anything that sounds good, and Greek—the Greberis family, which has owned the place forever now, is well-known for their spanakopita.

Tops Diner, East Newark, NJ

One of the great joys of the classic Jersey diner experience is scale—the sprawling, brightly-lit, open-late embrace of the chrome palace, the menu with more options than you could possibly need, and you could make your way up and down the state, and still not find a super-diner quite so memorable as this relatively compact number, hanging out almost literally in the shadow of the Newark and New York City skylines, crowded until midnight most days with the people who come from all over to eat here. Being one of the most decorated diners in the country, never mind the state, has yet to ruin the Tops experience—the meatloaf is terrific, the desserts you will dream of from afar, and the only thing the place really needs is more space, and that’s coming, apparently, next year, so stay tuned.

Sarah Crowder

Veselka, New York, NY

Back before the beatniks, and then the hippies, and then the punks descended on Manhattan’s East Village, a refugee couple from the Ukraine opened a newsstand at the corner of Second Avenue and East Ninth Street, aimed at serving the local Eastern European community—fast-forward about seventy years, past so much change, and that same corner remains the home of what eventually grew up to become one of New York’s best-loved all-night coffee shops, to this day offering a ringside seat to the neighborhood goings-on. Veselka’s distinctive menu of pierogies, borscht, goulash, and latkes has been a comforting constant, a connecting thread in a city where the only thing ever promised is that nothing ever stands still.

THE MIDWEST

Boyd and Wurthmann Restaurant, Berlin, OH

Like something out of an old advertisement for coffee in a can, the lights flicker on well before sun-up at this historic café, deep into Ohio’s Amish Country. On weekdays, the tables fill up quickly with groups of farmers, other manual laborers, and those older folks who are retired but just trying to keep in the loop. The surrounding town can feel like something of a tourist trap, and the region does juggle an astonishing number of visitors each year, but since the 1930s, the diner has been a touchstone for the people who keep Holmes County humming, not to mention anyone else who cares to get in on the experience. Roll in late—say, around 6:30 in the morning—for cinnamon rolls and coffee, or the buckwheat hot cakes with smoky applewood bacon, adding on a small bottle of real maple syrup, which you can most probably afford; the decor here isn’t the only thing that’s old-timey.

Frank’s Diner, Kenosha, WI

A 1926 dining car, shipped all the way from New Jersey, remains the centerpiece of this cozy, down-home outfit that has been serving a down-home kind of town for just as long. Ignore the utilitarian brick front and step into one of the most beautifully preserved pieces of diner handiwork left in the Midwest. Admire the wooden ceiling, everything in here, really—even the additional seating area, added later on, has been carefully, tastefully done. The cooking here is fiercely classic; the house specialty is the Garbage Plate, has been for ages—three or five eggs, depending on how hungry you are, with a ton of hash browns, peppers, onions, and (if you can stand it) a range of breakfast meats. Good luck finishing your breakfast.

Lou Mitchell’s, Chicago, IL

One of the most iconic locations along the much-mythologized Route 66 is actually older than the Mother Road itself, dating back to 1923; the neon still burns bright, all these years later, at this historic landmark just outside the Loop. You still get Milk Duds while you wait for your table, and you will wait; the omelettes, the waffles, and the restaurant’s unique, chaotic good ambiance continue to draw a crowd. Make sure to try the house marmalade, one of the charming little menu finds continuing to set this place apart in a city that’s never been short on breakfast options.

Schmucker’s, Toledo, OH

There are over twenty kinds of pie served at this vintage ice cream parlor that has also been one of Ohio’s most visually appealing diners for a very long time. Opened in 1948, the Schmucker family remains at the wheel, starting at 5 o’clock in the morning for the early breakfast crowd, when you’ll eat very well, and you’ll certainly eat enough (your coffee’s free, to boot), but lunch and dinner might be even better. There’s Grandma’s old recipe for Swiss Steak, there’s fried lake perch, massive hot roast beef sandwiches, and house-ground chuck burgers accompanied by fat, real deal French fries. And did we talk about the homemade pies, yet? Long story short—get yourself some.

Steer-In, Indianapolis, IN

Indiana’s big city is no stranger to a pilgrimage-worthy classic—the city is full of restaurants that have been around forever, and many of them border on exceptional. Since the 1960s, the horseshoe counter at this modest East Side institution has been a preferred destination for hungry people in a relatively far-flung section of town—in a state where fried pork tenderloin sandwiches are a kind of religion, the Steer-In’s grilled version manages to stand out. Ditto those big plates of thick, homestyle noodles swimming in rich beef gravy, and hand-cut ribeye steaks, which come with two sides and a roll for less than twenty bucks. The onion rings, by the way, are textbook-level perfect.

Tucker’s Restaurant, Cincinnati, OH

Through everything Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine neighborhood has been asked to endure since the end of the wars, Tucker’s has been there, serving breakfast, and for much of that time out of the same barebones storefront on Vine Street, reconstructed carefully after a punishing 2016 fire, as if there hadn’t already been enough drama to last several lifetimes. An astute local writer once observed that Tucker’s was the only place in Cincinnati where race and class didn’t matter; the still-family-owned spot treats anyone who comes through its doors like a welcome guest, and sources much of their food from quality local providers. Today, Over-The-Rhine faces a new kind of challenge, in the form of increasingly insistent gentrification—no doubt Tucker’s will survive that, as well.

THE SOUTH

Arcade Diner, Memphis, TN

Just now celebrating a century in existence, this Hopper-worthy diner around the corner from the Lorraine Motel (now part of the National Civil Rights Museum) has seen all sorts pass through the doors over time, rather notably a young Elvis Presley, who favored the place before becoming an international superstar, and even still, after that. Presley was known to use the restaurant’s back door as an escape hatch, when the fans went a little bit too wild. There’s a peanut butter and banana sandwich on the menu, of course, and the diner sells roughly 100 of them, each week—plump, delicious things served on buttered and griddled Texas toast. The Arcade is so much more than a piece of Memphis memorabilia; this is a living, breathing, local institution, serving up no-frills Southern food, every single day of the week.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Clary’s Cafe, Savannah, GA

Everything that you are looking for on a diner menu, you will find at this vintage local hang made world-famous in the pages of a certain novel—Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, around here referred to mostly as "The Book"but Clary’s is so much better than so many other diners. Think benedicts served with crab cakes, Georgia pecan waffles drizzled with honey, and fat slabs of the good ham with your eggs. With a legacy dating back to the 1930s, when Luther Clary first opened up shop downtown, you’ll be competing with half of the city and many a visitor, most weekends; come quite early.

Five Points Restaurant, Asheville, NC

Massive portions of moussaka and some of the better biscuits in town live in perfect harmony on the accidentally fusion menu at this are-we-really-in-Asheville, classic all-day that’s been a thing here since the 1970s, now operated by diner vets Louie and Pati Sellas, who moved down from New York, bought the place, changed very little, and, in the process, may have made one of the city’s least hip coffee shops better than ever. Asheville is nothing if not a tourist lure; it’s almost striking how few breakfast-seekers seem to find their way in here. More room for the locals who know.

La Teresita, Tampa, FL

Spend a little time, and this is greatly encouraged, making your way through Tampa’s multicultural (and, in many cases, around for a very long time) restaurant scene, and you will notice, the first time you enter the cafeteria side of what is perhaps the city’s most famous Cuban restaurant, a distinct uptick in tempo, a certain youthful vigor. That’s because this place was practically born yesterday, unlike some of the other places nearby, but don’t let that stop you—for the ultimate in late-night hijinks, preferably after other late-night hijinks, there are few ringside seats quite so sought after as the horseshoe-shaped counters at the all-night (on weekends) diner side of this multi-venue establishment, which has grown immensely from humble beginnings, back in the 1970s. The food is good. Who doesn’t love a giant helping of ropa vieja, for relatively little money? But even if you’re not hungry, crawl in for toasted, buttered Cuban bread and a mug of cafe con leche, anyway—soaking up the vibe is half the point.

Yoder’s, Sarasota, FL

The historic winter colony of plain folk out near Sarasota’s historic celery fields was long ago swallowed by just more Sun Belt sprawl, but thousands of Amish and Mennonites continue to make the Pinecrest area their seasonal home, and Yoder’s has been something like their welcome center, for decades now. Step inside for healthy portions of home cooking, served in a cheerful, diner-style setting filling up every day except Sunday with hungry Floridians, some of them driving for hours to get here. Think big breakfasts, crispy, addicting broasted chicken just like they do it up north, and a sometimes overwhelming selection of pies.

Jeff Greenberg / Getty Images

TEXAS & THE SOUTHWEST

The Original Blanco Cafe, San Antonio, TX

Declaring a particular all-day Tex-Mex hash house the best in contender-heavy San Antonio is akin to insisting, to anyone who will listen, that you’ve come upon the absolute best pizza in New York, or the finest Italian beef in Chicago. Fine, go nuts, just as long as you know that there are going to be a lot of people with what we might politely refer to as opposing viewpoints, and a good percentage of them rather strongly held, at that. Of course, a dizzying excess of choice is the point; San Antonio is spoiled for migas breakfasts, for chicken fried steaks and queso, brisket plates and enchiladas—while playing favorites with that last one on the list is equally risky, the San Miguel family recipe, the one being used since their father opened the place in the 1970s, comes pretty damn close to legendary, in this town—choose from cheese, chicken, or beef.

Gus Balon’s, Tucson, AZ

Like so many winter weary Midwesterners before and after, Gus Balon packed up and left with the dream of a new life in the warmer, more reliably sunny Southwest; the avid baker made a few stops before settling into Tucson and opening up this now third-generation Balon-owned institution, back in 1965. Cinnamon rolls, very large ones indeed, are the calling card, but then there’s that homemade corned beef hash, which is mostly generous amounts of corned beef—sorry to that one person who prefers a lot of potato, whoever they are. The food evokes Balon’s former home state—Iowa—far more strongly than the Southwest, but this has yet to stop Tucsonans from claiming the place as their own.

The Pantry, Santa Fe, NM

Blue corn hot cakes redolent with cinnamon, home fries mingling with red chile, omelets bursting with chorizo, carne adovada with your scrambs—let’s say you weren’t so much feeling those New Mexico vibes before you got here, to one of the state capital’s most iconic restaurants; one breakfast should put you right, and then some. Since the 1940s, this has been a prime go-to for locals and visitors, and while it’s rare to find a diner this famous holding itself to such a high standard, that’s what keeps everyone coming back, no matter how busy the place can get. Consider returning later in the day—the restaurant’s green chile is some of the most sought-after in town.

The Peppermill, Las Vegas, NV

All generously-padded seating glowing electric blue and hot pink, evoking the interior of the dream limo you never could have afforded to hire for junior prom, if your town even had such options at the time, this very stationary, not-going-anywhere gift to to the Las Vegas Strip, straight from the 1970s, is so retro-fabulous, it even has a cocktail room, still very much in operation—this is Las Vegas, after all. Come for a happy hour mai tai or scorpion around the cool flame of one of the indoor fire pits, then grab a table on the more traditional (to use the term loosely) diner side for a shareable plate of nachos that could feed your whole table—typical of most dishes here.

Tel-Wink Grill, Houston, TX

Not that the country’s fourth-largest city makes a habit of walking around with its nose in the air, but there’s this classically blue-collar part of town, over near the refineries—think that infamous stretch of New Jersey Turnpike, but many times over—that happens to be one of the realest places in Houston, and the Tel-Wink is easily one of the area’s preferred gathering places. They’ve got competition; there are at least two other classic coffee shops within walking distance, but this one—named for the intersection of Telephone Road and Winkle Drive—works the hardest for its money, churning out perfect chicken fried steaks and waffles since the 1940s.

THE WEST  

Bob’s Big Boy, Burbank, CA

People fly to Los Angeles from all over the world, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of showbiz magic, and they are so often looking in the wrong places—it’s in the mostly-sunny San Fernando Valley that so much of the real work gets done, and it’s at this singular, landmarked outlet of the classic coffee shop chain that so many of the goings-on can be observed. World-weary bi-coastals just off their Burbank flights trying to revive themselves, studio grunts on break, celebrity couples looking to grab a bite, as people like to do, whether famous or not—it’s all happening here, at this magnificent institution with its seductive, swooping counter, long enough to double as a fashion show runway. Order a plate of some of the best fried chicken in the city; a platter of the onion rings—with a side of ranch for dipping, we’re in California now, this is legal—is how you start the meal. Pick up a classic iced tea cake, only $1.50 each—who even sells these anymore?—at the register, on your way out.

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Bette’s Oceanview Diner, Berkeley, CA

What happens when a Jersey girl sets about recreating the diner culture of her youth in the Bay Area city that around that same time just so happened to be in the middle of reimagining the way Americans ought to eat? All Bette Kroening wanted, when she opened up shop back in 1982 with husband Manfred, was to serve diner classics using the fresh local ingredients that everyone else was so hot for; to this day, we can look back to Bette’s—let’s go ahead and call this the Chez Panisse of diners, truly deserving—as a true finer diner pioneer. We can also roll past here on any given weekend, only to find lines—local, and pilgrim alike—of up to two hours, all for a plate of some of the finest, lightest, most covet-worthy pancakes served in any American breakfast joint, best consumed alongside an order of the exemplary bacon. As if this needs to be said—come off-peak.

Fuller’s Coffee Shop, Portland, OR

Homemade bread and jam set the tone at this alluring corner joint where each seat in the restaurant is a counter seat, backed by giant windows that even on the darkest days, lend Portland’s finest no-nonsense diner an abundance of natural light. Classic it may be, but there’s a distinctive creativity to the menu here, nearly essential in a town where breakfast and brunch are essentially a new kind of religion—choose from fresh, fried razor clams, try the indulgent Monte Cristo sandwich, or simply appreciate just how good a plate of bacon, eggs, and potatoes can be, when someone back behind the counter gives a damn about quality. Other breakfasts may be more famous, but let them wait for another day—at Fuller’s, chances are you won’t feel like you’re missing out, at all.

Highway Inn, Waipahu, HI

Classic coffee shop culture thrives in the 50th state, where they’ve even got their own, thriving chain of temples—ask anyone here about Zippy’s—to Hawaii’s extremely specific, endlessly craveable brand of comfort cooking. There are only a couple of locations of the much-older Highway Inn, and the original in suburban Honolulu is honestly the one you’re looking for—the menu hasn’t changed much at all since the 1940’s, and the star is their lau lau, pork or chicken steamed in taro leaves, served up on school canteen trays with rice, pipikaula (Hawaiian style jerky) and an array of other delicious, won’t-find-that-at-Denny’s goodies.

Ruth’s Diner, Salt Lake City, UT

Ruth Evans is the sort of person that Salt Lake old-timers have typically talked about, when they talk about how outsiders have it all wrong, and that their city has always been far less buttoned-up than its reputation might suggest. The chain smoking, gun toting, former cabaret singer with a penchant for the sort of language that was once referred to as the sort that “would make a gangster blush” was for many years the proprietor of Utah’s second oldest restaurant, which to this day remains one of Salt Lake’s most popular places for a meal out, despite being holed way up Emigration Canyon. The restaurant is there because Evans wanted it there—once she’d had enough of city life, she had the old city trolley car towed out of town and into the wild, where she lived out her days with her rather aggressive Chihuahuas, even after she sold the restaurant. Generations of hungry people have been making the trek up to the now-expanded restaurant for Ruth’s favorites—biscuits and gravy, eggs benedict, baked macaroni and cheese, meatloaf—ever since.

Frank’s Diner, Spokane, WA

What’s a serious dining car set-up, one that plenty of New England cities wish they still could lay claim to, doing in a city this far west? The story goes back all the way to the 1930s, when Frank Knight rescued a 1906 Barney Smith observation car from a Seattle rail yard, dragged it over the Cascades, dusted the thing off and made Frank’s into what remains, to this day, Eastern Washington’s best-loved diner. (There’s a second car, slightly newer, operating on the other side of town, too.) Fittingly situated directly below railroad tracks, the grills at Frank’s fire up at six o’clock each morning, every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving, for orders of classic silver dollar hot cakes, not to mention everything else on the thoughtful, often locally-sourced menu.

Wolfgang Kaehler / Getty Images

Serving Spoon, Inglewood, CA

Southern California is full of coffee shops where the actual building is the star attraction; chances are, the only location scouts beating a path to the front door of this strip mall cafe (only a couple of blocks from the movie-ready Pann’s, and ten minutes from the beach at Playa del Rey) are the ones hungry for proper, California-style soul food—for chicken and waffles, oxtails on Wednesday, and chitlins served with cornbread at weekends. The Spoon’s long counter, with its row of chunky wooden chairs all lined up like soldiers, has been something like the set of a reality show where Inglewood and its inhabitants are the stars, since the 1980s, when Harold Sparks left Ohio (and the automotive industry) to open his dream restaurant. His family still runs the show.

Val’s Burgers, Hayward, CA

Order the one-pound Papa Burger at this impeccably-kept mid-century diner in San Francisco’s East Bay, and your server will warn you, with good humor, that you’re going to need a bigger bun. For anyone who’s ever wished diners would serve larger burgers, Val’s, short for Valenzuela, as in Al and Carmen, who opened the place back in 1958, answers the question, how much burger is too much? The answer is no such thing, but for those who find the Papa a bit overwhelming, and there’s nothing wrong with eating yours with a knife and fork, there are smaller versions, all of which can be dressed up with your table’s very own condiment service, laid out carefully each day in Tupperware containers and squeeze bottles, like you were at a very well-organized church picnic, but without the quiet judging—take as much as you like. Everything about Val’s feels beautifully nostalgic—the glorious wood-beamed ceiling, the vinyl booths, the faded celebrity snapshots hanging on the paneled walls. (Is that local politician Kamala Harris? Yes, it is.) Burgers are the star, but the breakfasts, and the steak dinners, and the hand-scooped milkshakes, are as good a reason as any to find your way here, while the quickly-changing Bay Area allows this place to exist.