37 years down the road…

It is still hard to even wrap my brain around the fact that I took my very first “Diner” photograph 37 years ago on November 29, 1980! Although my interest in Diners goes back to the 1950s when I was around 5 or 6 years old, the groundwork for this first “Diner” photo op was a few months in the making. I had purchased a used 35mm camera in the summer of 1980 and started taking some scenic photos after being inspired by my pal Steve Repucci.

The Bypass Diner, Herr Street in Harrisburg, PA. The first “Diner”
photograph featuring my blue 1979 Chevy Van parked in front!

To backtrack a little, Steve and I crossed paths after I had started a new job in September of 1976 at Analogic Corporation in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Steve had been employed there since 1974. We became acquainted through our shared employment between 1976 and all thru 1977, but did not socialize much outside of work until June 24, 1978, when we had gone on a camping trip to the Lake George, NY area for a weekend.

After that weekend, we became fast friends and I soon learned of Steve’s passion for 35mm photography! At that time I had always had a Kodak Instamatic camera around just for taking snapshots. I was not an avid photographer at all. But seeing some of the photos that Steve shot inspired me to look at photography seriously as a new hobby.

In April of 1979, another critical high point came when I purchased my first brand-new vehicle, a 1979 Chevy Van. From 1971 until that April, I had always owned used vehicles which got me around adequately enough, but there was always that looming cloud of possible mechanical problems which could hinder long distance travel. In purchasing the new van, this cloud had finally dissipated! In fact during that year, Steve and I had started our weekly Sunday morning short road trips, usually stopping for breakfast at local diners. This got our heads wrapped around the idea of tailoring the Sunday morning ride destinations either driving to already known diners to just flat out exploring to find new places to have breakfast.

So with the purchase of the new van in 1979, this allowed me the opportunity to increase the scope of my traveling. And then with the subsequent purchase of my first 35mm camera, the stage was set that led me to that first “Diner” photo! September of 1980, Steve had realized his plans of moving to Harrisburg, PA for a change of scene. A good friend of his from the U.S. Air Force, Ed Womer, lived there and gave Steve the incentive to relocate.

I was one of the people who helped in getting Steve moved (owning a van back then, I was always being asked to help people move). So this was my first time traveling to Pennsylvania. On that initial trip, I noticed a few diners while I was there, although I do not recall eating in any on that trip. It was the next time down over the long Thanksgiving Day weekend when I took that first shot of the Bypass Diner which was a mile or so from where Steve and Ed had their shared apartment. Nowadays, the Bypass Diner still exists although it has been operated as the American Dream Diner for many years.

Now that 37 years have elapsed and I have photographed over 860 diners in that time. I can’t help but think back on this personal trip, especially since I have been scanning all my slides and photos in earnest for the last 2 and 1/2 years, (I stopped using 35mm film and went fully digital in 2008). With this scanning project, I am building up my digital archive of photos. It seems that whenever I scan any particular photo, be that of a diner or any other miscellaneous subject, I tend to relive those days.

But really, it all started when I was a kid, living in Medford, Massachusetts. My dad Sebastian “Sam” Cultrera loved diners and was the guy who first told me about them. He brought me out to breakfast to places like the Star Lite Diner, on Mystic Ave. in Medford…

The one and only photo of the Star Lite Diner known to exist.
This is my colorized version (using Photoshop).

The Star Lite was fairly close to my family’s meat market and I also used to ride the delivery bike from the store down to the diner for lunch. I recall playing tunes on the juke box and kibitzing with the owner Jim and his son Richie. They closed for their usual 2 week vacation in the summer of 1968 but unfortunately never reopened. The diner reportedly was moved to a salvage yard in nearby Chelsea, Massachusetts.

My large scale scratch-built model of the Star Lite Diner.

We also frequented Bobbie’s Diner, also located on Mystic Ave. in Medford. My dad actually supplied hamburger meat and Italian Sausage to Bobbie’s Diner from our family meat market, the Blue Eagle Market.

My one and only photo of Bobbie’s Diner, not long before it
was demolished.

I was driving by one morning and saw that the diner had been
dismantled and placed in a dumpster.

The next day it was almost completely gone…

Later, when I became friends with David Hebb, he gave me one of his definitive photos of Bobbie’s Diner for my collection…

David Hebb’s photo of Bobbie’s Diner from circa 1980 or so.

I have since learned a bit of the history of this diner and that it was located prior to World War II in Haines Square a commercial center just off the Fellsway in Medford.
It was originally known as Jack’s Diner. The family that owned it moved it in the early 1940s to the yard adjacent to their home for a few years before relocating it to Mystic Avenue where it again operated as Jack’s before being sold.

Jack’s Diner being moved from Haines Square.

The last diner to operate in Medford was Carroll’s Colonial Dining Car, a circa 1961 vintage Swingle Diner. This replaced 2 earlier diners at its location on Main Street. I recall my family going for breakfast on Easter morning after church for a couple of years when this diner was brand new. Later, after graduating from high school, Carroll’s became the go-to hang out for my friends and I for quite a few years.

A night-time photo I shot in the winter of 1982

Carroll’s Diner, from a photo I shot in 1983.

Carroll’s closed in 1986 and was demolished to make way for a new office building. More recently the Carroll family opened a new restaurant a couple of blocks away just off Medford Square called Carroll’s Bar & Grill.

Carroll’s Bar & Grill on Main Street in Medford Square.
May 5, 2012 photo by Larry Cultrera

When I started this trip 37 years ago, little did I know that it would eventually lead to me writing this blog as well as 2 books. I want to give a shout-out to all the friends I have made during this journey, chief among them, Richard J.S. Gutman, John Baeder, David Hebb and all the diner owners I have come to know personally. I wonder what the next decade or two might have in store???



Part 1, New York state road-trip, May, 1985

I was going thru some 35mm slides recently, and decided to “re-live” a solo road-trip I took from May 20th to 22nd, 1985. This trip was to take in some areas of upstate New York that I had not explored since I started documenting diners in 1980. I am going to break this into a two-part post as I am scanning 98 percent of the slides I shot on that trip.

As I recall, I started out the trip by driving state Route 2 from the Boston area out to Albany, NY. My ultimate destination was to explore out as far as Syracuse before heading back by way of my old stomping grounds of Lake George. After following Rte. 2 into NY state, I crossed the Hudson River from Troy to Watervliet. Just over the river I had always noticed an old barrel-roofed diner being used for an Off-Track Betting parlor (OTB). For those who don’t know, Off-Track Betting was a legal form of betting on horse races that was popular in NY state from 1970 to 2010. So this particular day, I finally decided to stop and take a few shots of this place, although checking out these images I can see that it was probably not the right time of the day to try and document this place. I am figuring also that the slide film I was using then was not as conducive to the varied lighting conditions I encountered during this trip. (I’m thinking I was using Ectachrome instead of Kodachrome or vice versa).

I believe this might be the remnants of a Bixler diner or even a Rochester Grill diner and was never really sure if there were 2 diners grafted together or an addition to the original building that mimicked the roof-line. Anyway, I checked Google street view when I started writing this post and it looks like the place is still there and of course it now has light gray colored siding applied to the exterior which would make it much easier to photograph then when I did in 1985.

After I left the OTB place I drove down Rte. 32 south toward Albany following the river. From what I could tell, I stopped at Jack’s Diner in Albany and grabbed something to eat. I say this because even though I had a slide,  it was not logged in for this particular trip and for a good reason, this was not my first visit to this diner as it was already in my log book (October,2, 1982). I know I documented it on that previous trip but I actually went in and ate there for the first time on this one.

Again because of the time of day (the light was not great), I only took one shot of Jack’s this time around as I knew I had decent shots from the last time there and did not have to go wild. So after lunch. I left Albany and started traveling west on Rte. 7 and eventually came upon Gibby’s Diner, a tiny 1950’s Mountain View Diner in the small hamlet of Quaker Street, NY. I recall getting out of my Chevy Van with my camera to start taking photos when a family was coming out of the diner after eating there. The husband looked at me and asked…. are you one of those guys that goes around taking pictures of old diners??? I replied, I take pictures of all diners!!!! Just one of those encounters you always remember.

Gibby’s has the smallest entryway vestibule I have ever seen.  I continued west on Rte. 7 until I hit the Unadilla area (You-na-dilla). As I recall, I found a campground nearby to the town and stayed the night. This allowed me to have dinner that evening as well as breakfast the next morning at the Unadilla Diner. This diner was built by the Master Diner Company and was pretty much original inside and out….. with the big exception of the added peaked roof that covered the diner and overhung the front giving the impression of a “front-porch”. This made it very difficult to photograph, especially with that wrought iron railing, so I managed to shoot as many angles as I could to document it.

After breakfast at the Unadilla on May 21, 1985, I believe I continued west on Rte. 7 until I got to Bainbridge, NY where I got onto Rte. 206 and followed it all the way to U.S. Rte. 11. I then proceeded north on Rte. 11 up to Cortland. This brings me to the reason why I decided to post this group of slides from this particular road trip. What actually spurred me on was that Mike Engle recently posted a scan of a news-clipping that showed a diner in the town of Cortland, NY on Facebook. He identified it as quite possibly the only photo of a “General” diner he had found to date.

I recognized it immediately as Frank & Mary’s Diner, one of the diners I came across on that May 1985 trip. General Diner Company (presumably from New York state) was not prolific in their output of small barrel-roofed diners, according to Mike Engle they may have built around a dozen diners.  In fact this is possibly the only known example extant. I myself assumed it was an on-site built diner as I had never seen another like it in my travels.

I more than likely had a sandwich or something at this diner before I continued on. Shortly after Frank & Mary’s I located 2 other diners in Cortland. The next one I came across was a Ward & Dickenson built diner called Spiro’s Diner. It looked pretty neat although it had an addition as well as what looked like some sort of siding on the facade under the windows.

My log entry for Spiro’s tells me I did go inside but as I just had eaten at Frank & Mary’s I probably just got a soft drink to go. Heading out of town toward Syracuse on Rte. 11 I came across the third Cortland diner…. a large Sterling Diner operating as Gary’s Riverside Diner. I did not go in but did get a couple of photos of it…….

I finally made it up to Syracuse and immediately found a campground for the coming evening. Now I knew there were diners in the area but had no real idea where they were. Remember, this was before the internet and such, so I did the only thing I could do…. I asked the owners of the campground to borrow their Yellow Pages Phone Book! I went in and started writing down all the diners I found listed and went out to try to locate them, ah the dark ages of diner hunting! The first diner in Syracuse I photographed was “Cameron’s of Syracuse”, a multi-sectioned Bixler located on Wolf Street, a major north-south artery thru town.

After scanning that 3rd slide of Cameron’s, I had to get rid of a “lens flare” in the photo. It took me a couple of tries but I found the secret. I need to perfect the procedure but think it came out good considering. The last diner in this first part was right down the street…. the J.R. Diner. I thought this too was a Bixler diner but it turns out to be an even more rare Rochester Grill diner. The products of these 2 companies were very similar.

I am not sure why there was a sign on this side of the building that said “Allen’s”, maybe a previous name that did not get painted over? I just never found out. Anyway, this is the end of “Part 1” of this post, Part 2 will come along in the next month after I locate and scan the next batch of slides.

Notes from the Hotline, 11-14-09

New York Diner News

This has been posted on numerous sites including RoadsideOnline and Roadside Fans Yahoo Group but I need to get on the bandwagon as well. It was reported this week that two legendary diners from Albany, NY are being put up for sale by their respective long-time owners. There was also news of a “changing of the guard” at an iconic New York City diner this week as well.

Miss Albany Diner

The first of the two Capitol District Diners to be on the block is Cliff and Jane Brown’s Miss Albany Diner. Cliff is right up there in my book (along with Phil Paleologos of New Bedford’s Shawmut Diner) as being one of the most affable and enthusiastic owners I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. The Brown’s have been running the Miss Albany for 20 years interestingly after having retired from previous positions in other careers.


 Here is the text of a story that appeared in the Albany Times Union on November 12th…

Diner for sale, hold the change

The Miss Albany Diner owners ready to retire, but hope their classic fare remains eternal


The diner, like the neighborhood, draws all types: Yuppies and factory workers, rich and poor, old-timers and hipsters — all in search of a cup of coffee, a warm meal and… “A friend,” Jane says. “They just need somebody to listen to them.”

The Browns this year are celebrating their 20th year as owners of the Miss Albany. But Cliff is 82 and Jane is 75 — and they’re eager to move on. Their son Bill, the restaurant’s cook, isn’t interested in taking over. The Browns are looking for the right person to take the diner into its next phase. Jane Brown says the business is profitable, though it has hardly made the couple rich.

“I will miss the people,” she says. “I will not miss the work.” The Miss Albany is adjacent to Wolff’s Biergarten, the popular nightspot. And its owner, Matt Baumgartner, is one of the diner’s big fans. “Anytime I have friends visit that’s one of my go-to places,” he said. “And everybody leaves loving it.”

The Miss Albany was built in 1941 and remains authentic to its time — so authentic that it received a preservation award from the Historic Albany Foundation, which noted that diner has never undergone a character-robbing remodeling. It has kept its charm. “It just feels like a good, old-fashioned diner,” Baumgartner said. “They don’t make diner cars like that anymore.”

Chris Churchill can be reached at 454-5442 or cchurchill@timesunion.com. Read his blog at http://blog.timesunion.com/realestate


Although it is sad to hear that the Brown’s will no longer be a part of this diner experience in the Capitol District in the near future, they certainly are due a well deserved retirement and we wish them all of our best wishes.

Jack’s Diner

The second of the two Capitol District Diners reported this week to be for sale is Jack’s Diner at 547 Central Ave., a well maintained and rare Comac Diner run by Jack Murtagh (who is only the second owner) business is on the market for $175,000, because Jack is retiring after 44 years in the business.


Empire Diner


It was also reported this week that NYC’s Empire Diner will be changing operators. Apparently the lease was up for renewal and the long-time operators lost out to owners of a very popular coffee shop from Union Square. This was the text of a small piece from the Gothamist website…..

The iconic Empire Diner in Chelsea is being taken over by the team that operates the obnoxiously fashionable but beautifully staffed Coffee Shop in Union Square. The owner of the property will not be renewing the lease with Renata Gonzalez, who’s operated the classic diner for over three decades. Instead, the Gotham City Restaurant Group will replace Gonzalez with a 15-year lease rumored to be in the $25,000 per month range. Gonzalez says she’s trying to get the new owner to keep some of the current employees, some of whom have been there for as long as her, but that seems unlikely. The name’s changing too, but that hasn’t been revealed yet.

Coffee Shop co-owner Carolyn Benitez tells Chelsea Now the diner will still operate 24/7, but she’s planning on radically reinventing the menu: “It’s a diner in feel, and that’s what appeals to us. It’s not going to have any other identity except being a great old diner with better food.” She’s promising “better ingredients and better quality production,” as well as “that Coffee Shop flavor,” which we interpret as ‘higher prices and hot but aloof servers.’ Oh well, at least we’re not losing it to Alabama.

As I understand it, Renata Gonzalez took over ownership from Jack Doenias who was credited with the transformation of this 1946 Fodero diner into the world’s first upscale diner in 1976. Also, Renata had ties with Thomas Feucht who is the founder of the Sam Kullman’s Diners, a chain in Germany.

It is a little upsetting to hear the new operators are going to change the name of the diner. We hope the other changes alluded to will not destroy this landmark diner.