Saturday, August 29, 2009

Diners, Drive-ins, Dives and how to tell them apart

I have to thank that show from the Food Network - first, for recommending Duarte's Tavern, where we went two weeks ago for dinner, and second for inspiring the title of this post. In fact, this does relate to science fiction and fantasy, as I will get to below.

When we first went to Duarte's, we tried to decide whether it was a Diner, a Drive-in, or a Dive. Drive-in was easy to exclude, because any restaurant that involves driving in and remaining in the car while receiving food is easy to recognize. However, we did spend a bit of time discussing the difference between a Diner and a Dive, and in the end we decided that alcohol was the key ingredient - to be specific, the presence or absence of a bar. Thus, a Diner would be a place that serves food but has no bar, and a Dive would be a place that serves food and also has a bar.

What I found interesting about this from a cultural standpoint - always the viewpoint from which I try to apply things to fantasy and science fiction - is that we were able to come up with such a systematic relation between different types of food establishments. Of course, this classification excludes certain other types of restaurants. But when you think about it, there are quite a few words for places where one consumes food - many of which have come from different cultures (off the top of my head I think of Restaurant, cafe, and bistro). So when you're designing an alien culture, or a fantasy world, it's good to think through what kinds of places people go to get food.

Inns are very common in medieval-style fantasy - like the Prancing Pony in the Lord of the Rings. I've encountered alien restaurants of various sorts in my reading. But as you're putting a world together it's worth considering how culture influences the way the people eat, and in what contexts.

Conceivably one could have a culture where eating food was a very private activity that should be kept in the home - and in such a culture you might have clandestine eating establishments (much as you can find brothels in ours, for a different kind of private activity).

Possibly you might imagine a culture in which food consumption was a highly competitive activity. Maybe eating establishments would be ranked on a tier structure, and competitions of various types might be used to decide who could go to which tier. Perhaps the greatest delicacies would require some form of combat - either a physical combat, or a combat of words and manners - to determine who got to eat them.

Or to elaborate on the concept behind the Diner/Dive divide, maybe there might be a particular type of dish or drink that might be served in one kind of restaurant but not in another, and this distinction could have social significance. Or possibly some activity like dance, or smoking, might be associated with food consumption in one type of establishment but not in another.

It's something to think about.


  1. OTOH, the Clinton Diner on I-78 does have a bar, and could not be called a dive. Diners are descended from railroad dining cars and take their name from them. You will generally not hear a blind saxophonist wailing jazz in a dim-lit diner, but you may in a dim-lit dive. I believe dives took their name from the fact that you often had to descend a flight of steps below street level to enter the place.

    Another distinction is that diners are run by Greeks and not-diners are run by not-Greeks. IOW, different kinds of restaurants may be typical of different ethnoi, not because they are forced to do so by a prejudiced society - no one forces the Greeks hereabouts to run diners - bt because of family traditions, ties, support networks, etc.

    Here in the east, there is a fine distinction between a "diner" and a "family restaurant" that has to do with the amount of chrome used.


  2. Sounds excellent, Mike. I like your proposed etymology a lot. My husband and I were laughing when in Australia about the fact that the best fish and chips shops were typically run by Greeks in his experience - perhaps it is a worldwide culinary conspiracy :-D . Great to see you stop by.

  3. Oh, and Mike's visit reminds me I should also have mentioned another use of eating establishments in sf/f - their function as storytelling locales. Mike Flynn has a whole series of stories told in an Irish Pub, including most recently "Where the Winds are All Asleep" in the October 2009 issue of Analog.

  4. Medieval inns also weren’t the same as restaurants where you actually order food off a menu. I’d read that the notion originated in China, though Wikipedia has a reference to an earlier development in Islamic lands. Some cultures might never get past the “you eat what’s currently cooking on the fire” stage for their eating establishments.

  5. This is a fun game!

    'Round these parts, you think diner, you think Jersey, and there are plenty of Jersey diners that serve alcohol.

    Your paradigmatic diner would be in a rail or trolley car. I would say 1) a diner has to serve breakfast all day, 2) a diner can't close for more than 6 hours a day and 3) a diner has an exhaustive menu.

    The human mind constantly compares and contrasts to make categories, even if we don't agree on the criteria for the categories. My midwestern mother said 'crick,' and growing up, I thought it was a seperate word for a small creek rather than an alternate pronunciation.


  6. Interesting point, Max. Menus are another optional feature of eating establishments! As are legible ones - I once went to a fancy Japanese restaurant where the whole menu was in calligraphy, and I couldn't read a thing!

    Great observations, K. Obviously there are lots of ways to tell these apart. My biggest point I guess would be to think through what the options are!