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What's Cooking? The Diner in Film

Discover how the diner plays a pivotal role in Hollywood cinema

The Diner in Film

The American diner is as iconic as the Stars and Stripes, baseball and slam-dunks. The traditional diner - all Formica, chrome and neon - is open all hours, serves cheap food and offers endless refills of black coffee. It's there as the unassuming star of Edward Hopper's ubiquitous painting Nighthawks, and it's there in countless classic American films.

George Lucas's 1973 masterpiece American Graffiti set the bar high by placing most of the action either in a 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe or over a Cherry Coke in a booth at Mel's Drive-In. The very same diner was earlier seen in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - Spencer Tracy is baffled by the extensive ice-cream list, which, the roller-skating waitress announces, runs from Mocha Jamoca to Fresh Oregon Boysenberry Sherbet.

The diner is so much more than a backdrop in a film: it creates an ambience; a mood. In Back to the Future, Marty sees his dad being bullied in a diner and decides to change the course of history. In Waitress, Jenna works as a waitress in Joe's Pie Diner and, desperately unhappy in her marriage, finds salvation in extreme pie-making ('naughty pumpkin pie', anyone?).

In Twin Peaks, FBI agent Dale Cooper pops into the Double R Diner for cherry pie and 'damn fine coffee' while mulling over Laura Palmer's murder, and in Diner, Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon relive director Barry Levinson's experience of diners as he was growing up in 1950s America.

The Diner in Film

Although the action is invariably focused on the diners themselves - there's the mesmerising scene in Winkie's in Mulholland Drive in which two men talk intensely before discovering something sinister outside, or Pulp Fiction's Uma Thurman/John Travolta dance scene that takes place in Jack Rabbit Slim's - the waitress often assumes a central role in that action.

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro memorably describe the waitress as looking like 'a burnt-out caricature of Jane Russell', while in Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson argues with the waitress when she refuses to overlook the diner's no-substitutions rule.

Some waitresses are more exuberant than others: Aretha Franklin broke into song when she played a waitress in The Blues Brothers, but in The Machinist, the airport cafe waitress is there to listen to Christian Bale, who hasn't slept for a year.

The Diner in Film

The diner waitress in American film is often a confidante, able to offer a no-strings-attached, sympathetic ear to her transient customers. In Outlaws, a mysterious drifter and motorcycle stuntman simply called The Stranger, played by David Beckham, washes up at a diner. The waitress, Cathy Moriarty, refills his coffee and says, 'So, what brings ya to this hell hole, stranger?'

Moriarty, whose breakout role at the age of 18 was playing Vikki LaMotta opposite DeNiro in Raging Bull, and who has since appeared in The Bounty Hunter and Law & Order, is a perfect border-town waitress. She may be worn out, but she's still looking for a good time, and perhaps this is something The Stranger can offer. She may be working the graveyard shift but, as we all know, anything can happen in an American diner…

Amy Raphael writes for Esquire, The Guardian and The Times, and is the author of Danny Boyle: In His Own Words and editor of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh