Diner dining isn't all mile-high burgers and shakes; use this guide to help you make the best choices.
Diners are designed to please everyone, from the breakfast-all-day crowd to the burger purists. You'll likely splurge a little bit on some roadside classics, but some options are definitely better picks than others (and the choices aren't always obvious). Get started with our diner do's and don'ts list below.
5 Dishes to Avoid
Anything Smothered, Covered, or Loaded
Dishes that are swimming in sauce (think biscuits drowning in gravy or fries buried in chili) usually give you two or three times a standard serving. The sauces are highly seasoned (read: salt and fat) before joining the rest of the dish, which means your palate will tire quickly. Go ahead and order your biscuit, fries, French toast, etc. unadorned.
Desserts as Beverages
Milkshakes aren't exactly thirst quenching when you're mid-meal; the super-sweet tends to drag down the savory, and it confuses the heck out of your taste buds. Enjoy milkshakes and other slurp-out-of-a-straw desserts as the decadent treats they are—at the end of the meal, when you can pay more attention to how full you are. If fresh lemon- or limeade is on the menu, go for it, keeping some water on hand in case it's a bit too sweet and needs diluting.
Iconic diner flapjacks are indeed enormous; a serving of this or any other refined carb will make you feel stuffed and sluggish, then ravenous a few hours later. But it would be cruel to tell you to skip pancakes at a diner if that's what you have a hankering for. Instead, get a small short stack from the kid's menu (or a single pancake if offered as a side) to go with the rest of your meal, knowing you don't have to finish the whole thing.
The Sneaky Salad
Salads at traditional diners require a little more scrutiny, as many bear the weight of buttery croutons, fried chicken, shredded cheese, and a creamy dressing. These salads may not be among the healthiest options in the end. If the sizzle of the griddle is calling you, look for healthy options elsewhere on the menu.
We're not quite sure how this sandwich format came to be…maybe there's more sandwich stability or stack-ability with an extra bread slice or bun half in the middle. More bread means more filler, making for a sandwich that's oversized and not quite balanced. Our favorite diner order? A patty melt on rye, with maximum surface area for the griddle.
Dishes to Order
Diners do breakfast, which means eggs every which way. Your short order cook has likely poached a few hundred eggs, so you're bound to get a perfectly done pair. With poached eggs, you skip added fat from the cooktop and get a yolk will stay perfectly luscious until you break it open with your fork.
Soup of the Day
If the soup changes daily, it's likely made in small batches with fresh ingredients, following a recipe similar to what you'd make in your own kitchen. Diners will rotate among heavy favorites, so it'll be hard to make a bad choice here.
Sides can help fill in the blanks when the main dish items on a diner menu seem to be missing a food group or two. Add a vegetable side salad or fruit salad to your meal if those food groups seem to be missing. If you started with lighter fair, say, a granola parfait, get a more substantial side like scrambled eggs. You can even build a meal from the sides section alone; just ask that everything arrive at once.
Family run diners are as diverse as America itself—you may find Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, or Polish specialties depending on who owns the restaurant. Just like a soup of the day, these dishes are likely born of cherished family recipes—you might not find a better version elsewhere. Order these if they are long-time favorites; avoid others that have no business being there (General Tso's Chicken? Why?)
If whole-wheat toast isn't an option, skip flavorless white toast or doorstop-heavy biscuits and go for a toasted English muffin instead. A long rise gives them a slightly tangy flavor and a craggy interior that's perfect for spreading with butter and fruit preserves or for catching a runny yolk.