Ultra Swank - Retro Adventures

The American Luncheonette

Written by Guest Writer • September 4th, 2015
The American Luncheonette

“I’ll see you at the luncheonette” is not a phrase most people hear anymore in America and most people wouldn’t even recognize the term luncheonette. A luncheonette is similar to a diner, but is not a diner – the biggest differences being that a diner has a larger range of food and is a full restaurant.

The main focus of a luncheonette was to serve lunch and was commonly seen inside the local five and dime store; it was a way to feed hungry customers and procure more business. Most people remember them from a popular store called Woolworth’s. Privately owned satellite luncheonettes were often seen in shopping districts that featured small shops and boutiques instead of a department store. It isn’t uncommon to find a small grocery, pharmacy, or retail store in a satellite luncheonette.

Luncheonettes are famous for their counter seating with a row or two of additional tables and a simple, limited menu. The menu usually consisted of popular sandwiches (egg salad, banana and jelly, hot meat favorites, grilled cheese, etc), soup (typically two options), popular salads (chef salad, fruit salad, coleslaw, etc), a wide variety of desserts (pies, cakes, ice cream, etc), fountain drinks, and other drinks (coffee, tea, ovaltine, postum, hot chocolate). Occasionally, luncheonettes featured a breakfast special or even a dinner special. The food was comforting and usually cost a few cents per meal.

These trendy lunch counters faded out in the 70s, though some do remain in the larger cities in America.

In several places fast food chains have taken over as the new form of a luncheonette, but they have the stigma of unhealthy food. A good example of this would be the Starbucks counter inside Barnes & Noble.

In popular media, these luncheonettes are somewhat overlooked and have simply faded into the background. Popular films that you may recall a luncheonette are: in ‘King Creole’ Elvis diverts attention at a 5-and-Dime for some thieves; in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ Doloris works at a larger-than-normal satellite luncheonette; and, in ‘The Departed’ Leonardo DiCaprio beats up two guys in a modern luncheonette.

Video: “King Creole”

Video: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

Video: “The Departed”

Written by: Jessie Desmond

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  • Yeah, the Luncheonette was a big part of the American landscape once upon a time, later to be done away by food courts and snack counters of today.

    I really do miss the lunch counter of Woolworth’s myself. Recall eating at once near my house.

  • Tripp47

    There’s a great place in Irving, TX called Big State Drugs..it goes a bit out of the definition because of its size, but the food fits the bill…. http://bigstatefountaingrill.com/

  • wunderbar21

    I recall eating at luncheonettes in the 70’s , namely Woolworth’s and Kmart’s. Kmart ‘s luncheonettes were fairly large for luncheonettes and served pretty good food with specials.

    Luncheonette’s food may have been simple, but it was wholesome and made to order. Today’s food courts and snack bars are filled with overly processed junk food kept warm under heat lamps for a time.


  • Waffle House.

  • Dr Why

    Believe it or not, the Target store here has a luncheonette. I saw it and immediately realized that I was looking at 1962. Not that that’s a -bad- thing.

  • Dr Why

    I think that Waffle House is more an attempt to mass-produce 1940s diners. Here in the South, Waffle House is as close as you can get to a good diner, but the prices are twice as much as they should be and the portions are half as much as they should be. You’d think that a good diner down here would make money, but it would fly right over these hillbillies’ heads.

  • skeets11

    The Target by me has a Pizza Hut, sort of the same concept.

  • Jazz Guy

    We still have plenty of luncheonettes here on the Jersey Shore. The general rule is that if it doesn’t close at around 1:00 pm or so just after lunch, then it’s a diner or just a restaurant. Also, they must open very early for breakfast.

  • Jazz Guy

    I worked in a Target many years ago. We called those places “roach motels!”

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