Illustration by Serge Bloch
Good, cheap, and simple: The American diner formula is just about perfect. At a real diner you get made-to-order home-style cooking, a comfy booth, unfussy service, a big dollop of nostalgia, and lots more. Sometimes, much too much more—and that’s the rub.
The biggest issue with eating at a diner is often portion size: mountains of fries, mile-high pies, rivers of gravy. Then there’s the swaggering way diner food is cooked: quickly, assembly-line style, on a flattop, which is a large, smooth sheet of stainless steel kept hot, and well greased, all day long. Short-order cooks throw more butter and/or oil on the griddle with every order, which means your food may soak up more fat than you think.
You can’t prevent all that fat on the griddle, but you can pay attention to portion size: Share, or take home, the rest. You can also keep an eye on likely calorie and fat content. We analyzed commonly ordered dishes at a number of diners. Those marked as "Splurge Only" aren’t untouchable (no food is) but can be a really big splurge. Nutrition numbers are estimates: Results vary widely among restaurants.
Best Diner Strategies
Order smarter side dishes...
That pile of fries and tiny paper cup of slaw can easily add 400 to 500 calories to your meal, along with a heavy dose of sodium. Have a cup of soup with your meal instead. It, too, may be salty, but a cup of chicken noodle, minestrone, or vegetable soup likely has fewer calories and will help you stay fuller longer.
...and avoid the blue-plate specials.
A hot open-faced turkey sandwich served with mashed potatoes, gravy, buttered carrots, and apple crisp may seem like a great deal, but it’s only a bargain if you split it into five meals! The calories can add up to what most of us should consume in a day and a half.
- Cobb Salad
All the cheese, bacon, avocado, and dressing add up, and not even a whole head of lettuce could bring any virtue to a dish that is basically a gargantuan calorie and saturated fat bomb.
- Patty Melt
Combine fatty ground beef, tons of melted cheese, and onions fried in oil, and the calories and saturated fat accumulate faster than the national debt—even before the routine fries round it out.
Ask Your Server:
- Grilled Chicken Sandwich
Swap the often-included sauce, cheese, and mayo for a slather of mustard—along with lettuce and tomato—to boost flavor while keeping the sandwich in the 400-calorie range.
- Two-Egg Breakfast Combo
Hash browns cooked on the greasy griddle can easily contribute 200 or more calories, but you can save that much or more by eating unbuttered toast. Poached eggs cut more fat.
The BLT can be one of the lower-calorie options. Usually there isn’t a lot of bacon, so most of the calories come from bread and mayo—and you can hold the mayo.
- Grilled Cheese
Bread and a couple of slices of cheese don’t, alone, equal too many calories. If the sandwich has been flattopped with so much butter that it gleams, then share and have a cup of soup (see strategies, above) with it.