What’s Happened to The Diner?
Some of my fondest memories are from Penn State games. The 3 a.m. trips across Route 322, passing the moonlit Susquehanna with the ever-random Statue of Liberty, are fresh in my mind. Then, rolling into a fog-layered State College, the autumn foliage at its prime, we always managed to find a coveted parking space on College Avenue. This means that the first stop was The Diner.
Established in 1929, the 24/7 restaurant would open its doors for anyone and everyone. Whether you’re a student in need of a coffee, or a drunkard walking the streets, they welcomed you. Going there created a sense of nostalgia, making you feel at home and never wanting to leave. For these reasons, The Diner became almost a mecca for travelers, fans, and returning alumni alike. Of course, there is also its most famous treat: grilled stickies.
These masses of cinnamony glorified dough would entice anyone. Being able to market these as THE State College treat (which almost rivals the Creamery) made advertising possible even in the farthest reaches of Pennsylvania. Whether you got them with nuts, or without, it is almost sacrilegious to not order one upon arrival.
This might have been the major reason I fell in love. Arriving at a classic-looking diner with happy college students, sitting, waiting, and getting whatever my heart desired was more than enticing. Then, they would bring out the coup de grâce. As a young kid, being able to have a dessert-like treat, with ice cream, before noon, was awestrucking. While I would normally indulge in the Penn Stater, or Nittany Lion, the option of à la mode made my eyes light up more than any other order there.
However, many returns over the past couples years have not been the same. Maybe it’s the absence of traveling and being young, but The Diner according to recent memory, kind of sucks.
While I will receive good service from time to time, it seems that a majority of the time, the D-team is working when I am there, and I attend a fair amount (both B and C-teams are too good for me apparently). The counter worker/cashier will ignore me and other customers trying to pay just to have a conversation with some cracked-out townie. The one waitress, who may have spit in my food, is too busy being upset with her hours and serving bottom-of-the-pot coffee (whose freshness is questionable at this point) to try to get me a glass of water. This is all topped off by the overcooked eggs, undercooked hash browns, and burnt sticky served by an obviously new staffer (nothing against rookies) who clearly doesn’t know that his duties are to serve me and not continue small talk while I am trying to eat.
The diner has changed for, unfortunately, the worse, and those who disagree are jaded with such nostalgia. Maybe I just did not notice when I was younger because I didn’t know better, maybe it actually has started its plummet down a slippery slope. So in order to figure out what may be wrong with it, I broke down my last few experiences when eating at The Diner.
The first thing I realized (as stated earlier) was the service. It was incredibly slow, understaffed, and overall not very good. It’s as if they hired all no-experience servers, save for a few, to work the counters and staff the tables (which I now know why restaurants only hire people who have experience). I understand when the place is packed during Arts Fest and football weekends due to the large pilgrimages filing to the College Ave spot; however; it’s unacceptable when there are only five other people in the entire place, and it takes ten minutes before I am even asked for a drink. When talking to my dad though, he disagreed with service being the reason.
“The service has always been subpar,” the ’82 alum and former State College resident added bluntly.
So maybe then it’s money. Because they do not take Lioncash, students are less willing to visit the iconic spot and spend their actual income on a pricier eatery, as compared to a lot of local downtown counterparts that are much cheaper. I don’t believe it will change either, because for some reason (maybe tradition, maybe money) The Diner does not take the electronic currency. Many students who live in the downtown area highly depend on this means of payment to get their daily fix of nutrition, and it would make sense for them to use it, but for some reason they do not. Therefore the other downtown rivals could be the real demise of this establishment.
But besides Lioncash, a general problem is the overall price of food. While there can be some good deals at the right times, for the most part, one would have to pay $6-$10 for a solid meal.
“Things were fairly overpriced,” my father went on to say. “It was one of the only downtown places that was open late, which is why they could charge so much.”
That’s clearly different from today, where there are not only a plethora of pizza places, sandwich shops, chains, and other assorted eateries open late, but also places where you can get a cheaper price for sometimes larger portions. The Diner may not be a late night spot anymore, but it was a hot spot for both crammers and cravers. The Diner used to be open for 24 hours a day everyday, and it still advertises itself like that. It’s only open for 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays and closes at 7pm during the rest of the week.
So maybe it is a combination of both the money and convenience. I could (unfortunately) go to Canyon or Grillers and be served in a minute without spending more than $3. This honestly is where the problem may lay. With fewer students going, they are losing what should be their target audience. A restaurant making less income, results in less care and attention, which leads to poor quality and bad reputations. They won’t hold themselves to the same standards if they do not have to. The food is slowly getting worse, the hours fewer, and the service much more poor than memory serves.
The student crowds, as one server says, are “hit or miss.” Some days they may get a few who just want coffee and free WiFi, but more often than not, it’s pretty empty. The diminished fan base could ultimately result in terrible future business. Let’s face it, their biggest times are football weekends, and when alumni return; if it were not for alumni, I personally would never have known about the magic that once was The Diner. They still make fairly good business based on former students wanting to share a piece of their glory years at Penn State. Business will exist for now, but as fewer and fewer students know about it, it may not last as long I would hope.
Who knows though, it could be all in my head. I may be overanalyzing the situation too much because it does not relay the childhood memories which have engulfed my brain. I hope that is the case, because I love The Diner and always will. I just want it to be that magical place I was told about as a kid. But until it fixes some of its habits, I will only have those memories to cling to.
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About the Author
The seven businesses owned by Hotel State College & Company — including The Corner Room, Bill Pickle’s Tap Room, and Zeno’s Pub — were initially listed for sale on May 10.
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