The diner has been around since 1872 – sort of. The diner’s granddaddy came in the form of a horse and buggy-type wagon driven through the streets of Providence, Rhode Island by Walter Scott. He served simple sandwiches and coffee to journalists working through the night.
The idea of the lunch wagon spread throughout New England, and became known as ‘Night Owls.’ They served simple meals, and when other restaurants closed at 8 PM, they were the only options for a bite to eat.
History of Route 66 Diners
By the 1920s the most popular wagons parked in the same location day after day, so that their clients could easily find them. Then, to attract the ladies, benches and flowerpots were added outside. Within a decade, small establishments with a counter and bar stools began popping up, manufactured by companies like Worcester and Valentine.
Following WWII, diners hit their peak, and, in the 1950s, there were over six thousand of them spread across the nation. Many were clustered around the famous Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica – 2,448 miles of road.
In 1926, only eight hundred miles of Route 66 were paved. A little more than a decade later, it was paved across eight states, often incorporating existing roads into the route. This road often shifted through the years, as towns boomed and bust, so there are several versions of the same route. Various sections of Route 66 saw peak traffic levels of ten thousand cars a day, before being decommissioned in 1985.
New Mexico is fortunate to have a large chunk of Route 66 running through the middle of the state. This means easy access to those vintage diners that survived the rise of the superhighway (I-40).
What do we mean by a good vintage diner?
First of all, it has to have been around since the glory days of 66. Next, it needs to embrace that era, preserving the 1950s in a little time capsule. Finally, it has to serve good burgers. (In New Mexico, Mexican food is often served alongside the standard burgers and fries).
Going from east to west across the state, here are some good choices:
Joseph’s – Santa Rosa
This stretch of the famed road is filled with shuttered buildings and faded broken signs. To follow Route 66, you must pass under the I-40. The freeway was laid in the 1960s, cutting through Santa Rosa and causing a relocation program. Route 66, the lifeline of the town, was severed.
A few reminders of the past include Joseph’s, established in 1956, and still run by the Campos family. Above the entrance, you’ll see Fat Man, which became synonymous with Route 66 during the 1930s. Fat Man’s first home was the now-closed Club Café, which was located down the street. The Campos family bought the café in hopes of resurrecting the place, but the building was not repairable. Instead, Fat Man hangs out at Joe’s.
Inside, you’re greeted with a jukebox, lit up but silent. Doo-Wop music pours from the overhead speakers. The booths are worn, the menu is vast, and framed old newspapers declaring that the ‘War Is Over’ hangs on the wall.
The staff, who have all been serving here for a couple of decades, is friendly and efficient. They’ll make suggestions – Joe’s is known for their Margaritas and Mexican food. Well, not fully Mexican, they serve New Mexican food (there is a difference). The sopapillas are crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and go perfectly with honey. The chips arrive warm and fresh and the salsa is tangy. Try one of the mix ‘n match platters. You won’t leave hungry.
Before you head out of town, check out the railroad bridge to the west. This is where Henry Fonda (a.k.a. Tom Joad) hopped the train in John Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath.
Joseph’s, 1775 Historic US Route 66, Santa Rosa
Route 66 Diner – Albuquerque
Now this is a 1950s diner, located smack in the middle of 66 as it weaves its way through Albuquerque. Drive up and down Central Ave (66), and you’ll see the wacky hotels and Americana sprinkled here and there.
The diner itself has memorabilia from the era, but has been spotlessly maintained. The staff wears 50s starched waitress uniforms and there’s plenty of neon, Pez dispensers, and a wall of Elvis. There’s even an uber-Elvis in the bathroom watching over you. Creepy or cool? You decide.
As you tap your toes to surfer music, look over the diner menu – it has burgers and typical diner food, but also offers Mexican dishes and modern-day fare (think zucchini sticks).
Milkshakes occupy the most real estate on the menu. The Route 66 Diner makes the regular variety, along with several special offerings, such as the Pink Cadillac. It’s thick – as in suck for an hour and it’s still not gone – creamy, and handmade. It appeared to be a berry blend with some bits of cookie mixed in. Whatever it was, it tasted wonderful.
Route 66 Diner, 1405 Central Ave NE, Albuquerque
Luna Mansion – Los Lunas
Perhaps we’ve saved the best for last, and maybe you wouldn’t call the historic mansion a diner, but we had to include it on our list. It’s located in a burgeoning area of strip malls and chain restaurants serving limp fries. But, from first glance, you know that this place will be excellent.
The sprawling mansion rests on a sliver of an original estate. In 1692, the King of Spain gave Domingo de Luna this land, and the latter named the area Los Lunas. A generation later, Don Pedro Otero was granted a parcel of the land, and built a fortune through cattle herding, going on to acquire additional real estate. The family became a powerful political powerhouse and marriage into the Luna family solidified their clout.
In the 1880s, when the Santa Fe railroad proposed to run a line right through the estate, the company paid for a new home to be built. It was opulence for the era and was decorated with imported furniture and had gas-powered lighting. The mansion was expanded as it passed through the generations. In the 1970s, it was purchased by private investors and renovated into the area’s finest dining establishment.
There is a large bay window, gleaming wooden floors, walls decorated with family photographs, and polished marble fireplaces. This is a true steakhouse, offering the most tender prime rib, and specials like moist black cod. The wine list is extensive, and don’t skip dessert. The meal, the atmosphere, and the staff make you feel as if you’re a Victorian-era gent.
Luna Mansion, 110 Main Street SW, Los Lunas (former Route 66)