The New York Times journalist that recently declared the death of the diner and diner culture clearly hasn’t spent time in Rhode Island. In 1872, enterprising businessman Walter Scott parked his horse-drawn lunch cart in front of The Providence Journal, giving birth to a different kind of eatery: the diner. So, it’s fitting that Rhode Islanders cherish these local spots.
Case in point: The Modern Diner. The only J.B. Judkins Co.’s Sterling Streamliner still in operation, it’s entered into the National Register of Historic Places. After a move in 1986, the diner has been feeding hungry locals ever since.
On a recent Saturday morning, a line of people waits for tables while employees bustle between the original 1940s dining car and its annex.
“People like diners,” says Nick, surveying the crowd. “The food trucks? They specialize in one thing, but they’re diners.”
Counter to the mobile food truck trend, Nick says its the familiar faces that make the Modern Diner special. He points to a woman behind the tiny bar. “That’s Susan. She’s worked here for 20 years. In this room, the same people come and sit on the same stools. If they find someone else sitting on their stools, they get mad.”
“We have people who have been coming in for 30 years,” adds Nick’s sister and co-owner Stacey Aguiar. “We definitely have a more diverse community now. Our menu has adapted so that we can give them their cultural favorites.”
Nick’s Johnson & Wales training is evident in staples like eggs, pancakes, and waffles. In 2015, The Food Network christened his Custard French Toast creation – a happy accident involving vanilla pudding – the number one diner dish in the country, bringing the family-owned eatery national attention.
But for both Nick and Stacey, their regular customers are at the heart of their success.
“I was young when we first started this. We were 17 or 18 in the beginning,” says Stacey. “Our sense of family is ingrained in this community. We grew up here; we’re growing old here.”
364 East Avenue