I don’t think there is any better eating establishment than a diner, even a bad diner is better than no diner. The menus of most have practically some version of anything you’d ever want, and the inventive shorthand that the wait staff use to describe your order is a language of its very own; the vibe, noise and people watching is terrific and you can sit there as long as you want, no hassles.
Movies have a great source of bringing diners to the people – the cool style of Diner living can actually come into your home in the form of a film, so to celebrate that, I am presenting my TOP 10 Diner scenes on film. They are not ordered one better than the other, as they are all class, but, of all the Diner scenes in history, these are the best.
1. True Romance
When it comes to Tarantino dialogue set in a Diner, this scene is far from his best, you can see Reservoir Dogs and elsewhere on this list for examples of that, but I felt I had to start with this scene for one simple reason: It’s partly the inspiration for the name of the site.
In the film Clarence takes Alabama for pie at a Diner, after the Street Fighter triple feature they’ve both been watching. He says he “always likes to get a piece of pie after a movie”. Well, eating after a movie and discussing it is, also, one of my favourite things to do and that, with this scene, is why the site is named what it is.
The scene is bathed in the very cool, noir-ish like lighting scheme of cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball, directed by the late great Tony Scott and acted superbly by a, never better, Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette.
It might seem odd now, especially for anyone who has seen Righteous Kill (that 2008 crap fest), that there was so much palpable excitement surrounding this scene, when it came out, but there was. It would be the first time two of the most revered acting legends of their generation, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, had ever shared a frame of film together. They had, of course, both appeared in Godfather 2 but never in the same shot. It would not be until Michael Mann‘s Heat in 1995 that the great moment would occur and where better, but in a diner.
On first viewing it’s not a tremendous scene, exactly, and those looking for some insane acting lesson from two masters might be disappointed but, with time and hindsight, it’s a pleasure this exists and their determination to under play each other is a master stroke that only benefits the scene with each re-watch.
3. Five Easy Pieces
Coming off the back of his film stealing performance in, perhaps, the most iconic, disaffected youth, road movie of all time, Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson made this bleak but fantastically written film about another disenchanted character taking to the roads, back water towns and oil rigs of America. Five Easy Pieces is a must watch classic of late 60s/70s, Kerouac and the beats inspired, movie making.
The diner in question has, possibly, the rudest, least tolerant service and policies of any on the list and I can’t say this has been my experience in any diner in America (possibly because of this movie). It does, however, give Jack a chance to do what he does best: defy authority with logic and an underlying, intelligent menace while wrapping his lips around some excellent dialogue.
4. Taxi Driver
There are lots of different diners and cafes in, what is, one of my favourite films of all time, Martin Scorsese‘s Taxi Driver but one of the stand out and most evocative scenes that takes place in a suitably sleazy 70s NY dive, is this one. Travis Bickle, played, brilliantly, by a young Robert De Niro, goes in to sit with Wizard (Peter Boyle) and Doughboy, his fellow cabbies, but ends up feeling isolated, watched, out of his depth, different and, maybe, more alone than ever. The scene is filled with wonderful cab driver stories and fun characters but Travis can’t join in. His story is of a knife attack on 122nd street as he only sees the danger, the decay, a city in ruins and can’t relate to their tales of sex and celebrity bath tubs. He wants to be like them but isn’t. Later he tries to get advice from Wizard but it doesn’t help and he can’t relate. He’s on his path and no one gets it but him. There is a razor’s edge tension to this scene that is hard to pin down but brilliantly demonstrated in Scorsese‘s slow dolly shot passed threatening looking pimps and the slow zoom into the glass of Alka Seltzer. It’s one of the greats.
No list of movies featuring diners would be complete without Barry Levinson‘s brilliant coming of age story and homage to the end of the 50s, Diner. An all star cast of Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin and Paul Reiser deal with love, sex, marriage, music, movies and sandwiches from the booths of the Fells Point Diner, Baltimore during the last week of 1959. In this classic scene they ask the question Sinatra or Mathis? and bicker over a roast beef sandwich.
6. Muppets Take Manhattan
While far from the strongest of The Muppets film outings, Muppets Take Manhattan, directed by Frank Oz, has some truly inspired scenes in it and, as always, breath taking and charming puppetry. We also like it because a good third of the movie takes place in and around a diner. It’s Pete’s Luncheonette to be precise and two of the key scenes are when, firstly, Pete dispenses his life philosophy to Kermit and, then, when he leaves the rats (Rizzo and co.) in charge of the kitchen!
7. Groundhog Day
This fantastically funny and almost-great film from director Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray is marred only by it’s, somewhat, sappy rewrite to make it a family rom-com and Andie MacDowell’s presence. Otherwise it’s perfectly entertaining and surprisingly well made. Murray is at his best as the self centred Phil Connors and it makes little to no sense why he would pursue MacDowell‘s naive, idealistic, girly and pretentious TV Producer except out of sheer boredom and because the script gods demand a love interest. That being said, their sparring does allow Murray plenty of opportunity to flex both his comedy and sensitive acting muscles. There are tons of great scenes in Punxsutawney’s charming and home-like diner from ‘I don’t even have to floss’ to ‘I’m a God’ but my favourite is probably the one where Phil decides, quite by himself, that he is, very nearly, Rita’s perfect man, if it is, indeed, a man they’re still talking about.
8. When Harry Met Sally
This smart, funny, poignant, well observed and fantastically acted film endures as the only romantic comedy film that both men and women can like equally without fear of criticism. The same can not be said for 27 Dresses, Maid in Manhattan and other such degrading, contrived nonsense but When Harry met Sally is so sublimely written, performed and directed that either gender would have to be a fool to condemn it. You could argue Woody Allen, Kevin Smith, Judd Apatow etc. have all made romantic comedies that appeal to both sexes but their films are also divisive, not everyone likes them and, more importantly, they are not the first names you think of when you want to put in a film you KNOW your significant female other is definitely going to like, that you can watch without wanting to gouge your own face off. The same can not be said for any film advertised by Matthew Mcconaughey leaning on Kate Hudson.
When Harry Met Sally borrows a little from, the aforementioned, Woody Allen but not as much as you’d think and its shadow hangs over every rom-com filmed in New York City since but just because that’s true doesn’t mean you can blame it for Something Borrowed or any other travesty of decency and intelligence.
Rob Reiner would only make two more good films after When Harry Met Sally, before North broke an exactly 10 year long, very strong directing career in which he made some classics from every genre and as good as Misery and A Few Good Men are, they don’t have the personality or precision of When Harry Met Sally.
All this being said, the scene you probably think I am going to put here is the, now legendary, orgasm scene but you’d be wrong. Firstly it’s one of the weakest scenes in the movie in terms of dialogue and point, it’s just a gimmick and a chance for people to see the pre-plastic surgery, semi-normal, America’s sweetheart, Meg Ryan have a loud orgasm and secondly it takes place in a deli and not a diner. What’s the difference? you cry! well a deli is traditionally mostly sandwiches and a diner does a whole range of food and, plus, the show isn’t called The After Movie Deli is it?! Thankfully, there’s, actually, a much better scene earlier on in the film set in an actual diner.
The better, earlier scene is the Sheldon/great sex/days of the week underpants scene which is part of that splendid, long opening dialogue between Harry and Sally which is as good a back-n-forth as has ever been written.
Sadly YouTube fails me and doesn’t have the whole scene but below is part of the scene AND the full movie so you can find it and, come one who are we kidding, watch the rest of the film too!
9. The Big Lebowski
All of the movies on this list have one thing in common apart from their expert use of the diner as a location and that’s endless quotability and some would say that there is no better film for quoting endlessly than The Coen Brothers‘ 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski. Loosely based on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Lebowski was not a huge success on its release but something about its career defining performances, repeatable and expertly crafted dialogue and fantastic soundtrack, sourced by the awesome T-Bone Burnett, among others, struck a chord with the right people and 15 years later it is celebrated at Lebowski fests around the world.
The diner scene in question has to be the moment that Walter (John Goodman), convinced no kidnap has really been committed, tells The Dude (Jeff Bridges) that he can get him a toe by three this afternoon before having his rights violated by a well meaning diner employee. The whole thing, of course, is to do with Vietnam.
10. Pulp Fiction
Along with True Romance and Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction solidified Quentin Tarantino‘s ability to write scenes in which criminals or would-be criminals sat around in diners discussing pop culture, philosophical quandaries, by using pop culture laden metaphors, and what to do next. Pulp Fiction is delightfully and artfully filled with QT’s clear love of timeless California Americana and with nods and homages to 70s exploitation cinema, thankfully not to the annoying and cheap extent that his later work would be. A diner, a staple of 50s and 70s culture, then is a perfect place to fill with prime, 90s, Tarantino, nostalgia dripping dialogue.
I like to think he liked diners so much that he re-ordered the entire continuity of his film so that it could begin and end in the same diner.
The scene in question would be, if the film played chronologically, around the half way mark and involves Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer‘s Pumpkin and Honey Bunny planning to stick-up said diner while, in a booth a little ways away, John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson discuss dirty food and quitting the hit man game. In terms of sheer bravado and talent Tarantino would never better Pulp Fiction. He would mature a little, emotionally, with Jackie Brown and give us the unbridled joy of watching 70s legends Pam Grier and Robert Forster work their magic but everything since then doesn’t come close to the exciting, language loving film-making of mid-90s Tarantino. Shame he believed his own press and started to love himself more. Still, let us, now, enjoy him at his prime.
Other diners that didn’t make the top 10 but are DEFINITELY worth a mention and your time:
Back to the Future 1 & 2: 50s Diner and Cafe 80s
In BTTF1 Marty meets his Dad as a young man and watches as he is bullied by Biff and his gang (including a grinning Billy Zane) and in BTTF2 Marty gets mistaken for and then sees his delinquent son, oh and shows Elijah Wood how to play a video game.
Short Cuts: it’s all about Waits & Tomlin
In Robert Altman‘s star studied telling of some intertwined Raymond Carver stories he has Lily Tomlin working as a waitress in a diner, married to down and out drunk limo driver Tom Waits and being ogled by Buck Henry and 80s pop icon Huey Lewis!
Where do you go at 4 o’clock in the morning when a madly obsessive cartoonist wakes you up with his new theory about a case you’ve been trying to give up for ages? why, a diner of course!
It was a tough choice between this and Pulp Fiction for the finished list but while this scene, certainly, is a classic, I felt Pulp Fiction to be the better film.