It’s no secret why diners are beloved American icons. They boast serious nostalgia factor as century-old mainstays of the open road. And then there’s the food. Rooted in the traditions of American comfort food, diner dishes are simple, hearty, and indulgent.
In metro Phoenix, diner culture is a mix of past and present. If your definition of a “real” diner is a 24-hour roadside destination for scrambled eggs and waffles, then it’s true that the pickings around town are a little slim. But along with the Valley’s old-school greasy spoons, a new generation of modern diners is turning out craveable, stick-to-your-ribs comfort foods. For diner-style charm, these five classics and newbies are some of the best of the bunch.
1747 Grand Avenue
Hours: Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Mel’s Diner is a Phoenix original. An old-time breakfast and lunch diner that’s both famous and a little obscure, its less-than-fashionable location on an industrial stretch of Grand Avenue (a.k.a. U.S. 60) means you’ll probably have to make a special trip to eat there. You might recognize the exterior of the diner, which was featured in the ’70s and ’80s sitcom Alice, a show that helped immortalize the phrase “Kiss my grits!”
It’s worth a visit just to check out the diner’s impressive roadside sign, which features a giant tilted coffee cup and arrow pointing toward the low-slung diner. And inside, Mel’s offers all the virtues of a classic diner: a long linoleum counter equipped with comfy stools, Formica-topped tables, scruffy vinyl booths, friendly service, and bottomless cups of coffee.
Breakfast is king at Mel’s (it’s served all day), and you’ll find specialties like the Spanish skillet, a delicious jumble of chopped-up bell peppers, crisped-up potatoes, blistery tomatoes, savory ground beef, and melted cheese topped with a couple of fried eggs. Then there’s the wonderful gyro omelet, for which the fragrant meat is chopped into short strips, fried up, and folded into buttery eggs along with tomatoes, onions, and feta cheese.
Lunch highlights include a crispy chicken sandwich and a chunky, well-seasoned, hand-formed hamburger patty. Whatever you order, get it with a side of grits, a buttery, fluffy dish as timelessly comforting as a booth at Mel’s.
924 East Roosevelt Street
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; closed Monday
Welcome Diner now has been around long enough to be widely regarded as a downtown Phoenix staple. True, it’s not a traditional diner; the vintage red-and-white mobile restaurant that lights up the corner of Roosevelt and 10th streets is not open for breakfast. But chef Michael Babcock’s menu of elevated, Southern-inflected eats stays true to the comfort-food roots of the diner format.
The diner’s most iconic sandwich is the Big Jim, a buttermilk fried chicken breast topped with thick gravy, cheese, and bacon squeezed into a flaky, melt-in-the-mouth homemade biscuit. The sandwich is best eaten with an order of the ultra-creamy, herb-flecked mac and cheese that features a crème brûlée-like blowtorched crust.
This is one diner where veggie and vegan-minded diners can eat with abandon. The modern, creative diner fare includes a deliciously tart fried green tomato sandwich topped with corn relish and dressed in a bright chipotle ranch sauce; a succulent pulled jackfruit po’boy sandwich; and luscious French fries topped with fresh cabbage slaw and plenty of saucy, tangy hunks of meaty jackfruit.
1002 South 19th Avenue
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Diner 50 is a funky breakfast and lunch diner situated amid the drab, sun-bleached junkyards and industrial work yards of 19th Avenue and Buckeye Road. If you can look past the somewhat gritty location, you’ll be rewarded with a strong all-day breakfast menu and one of the most elaborate ’50s-themed dining rooms in the city.
The restaurant’s dining room features black-and-white checkered floors, pastel blue walls, a retro kitchen setup, vinyl records hanging from the ceilings like wind chimes, and a bright red Formica counter where you can comfortably sit and make small talk with the friendly waitstaff.
You’ll find all the breakfast classics here, from thick, fluffy, Frisbee-sized buttermilk pancakes soaked in butter and maple syrup to a hearty rib-eye steak platter, which comes with a well-cooked steak, a couple of eggs, and your choice of home fries or hash browns (the hash browns are excellent).
You’d be wise to ask about the semi-secret Mexican breakfast menu. You won’t find it written down anyplace, but the kitchen regularly whips up a wonderful plate of chilaquiles.
For lunch, the diner offers specialty sandwiches and burgers, like their very good Mexi Burger topped with grilled, smoky poblano pepper strips and crispy bacon. But at lunch, it’s best to keep the diner’s slogan, “Eat Retro,” in mind, and order the house meatloaf. The thick, beefy, and very juicy midcentury American comfort food staple served at Diner 50 might be even better than Mom’s.
8350 West Paradise Lane, Peoria
Hours: Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Slicks Garage, not surprisingly, is a garage-themed restaurant located in the chain-heavy shopping and dining district centered around 83rd Avenue and Bell Road in Peoria. Although it’s hardly a traditional roadside diner (you won’t be eating out of a pre-fab structure designed to look like a railroad car), the dining room at Slicks still screams midcentury nostalgia thanks to the motorcycle, vintage fuel pump, and license plate décor.
The garage theme carries over to the crowd-friendly menu, where appetizers are known as “Tire Kickers” and sandwiches are “Tire Busters.” The burgers, which carry names like Gas Hog and Grease Slapper, are the restaurant’s strong suit, though the New Mexican-style comfort food, most often cooked from scratch by co-owner Raina Young, is especially good, too.
A popular starter is the V-6 Quesadilla, a flour tortilla stuffed with your choice of chicken or beef, bacon, olives, and Hatch green chiles. The chicken version is well-seasoned and cooked to a pleasantly spongy consistency. You’ll also find straightforward, but well-executed combo platters like a three enchilada plate (one chicken, one beef, and one cheese), served in your choice of savory red or green sauce.
The house specialty is the Becky’s Breakfast Burger, which features a chunky patty topped with a fried egg, bacon, hash browns, and cheese, all miraculously squeezed into a basted bun. It’s a gooey and decadent way to have breakfast for dinner.
5149 South Inspirian Way, Mesa
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 7 a.m. to midnight; Saturday, 8 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday
Still a new kid on the block, this neighborhood restaurant is bringing some old-fashioned diner love to the community of Eastmark in Mesa. You’d have to be a little dead inside not to appreciate Handlebar’s midcentury appeal. Like Welcome Diner in downtown Phoenix, Handlebar operates out of a vintage, candy cane-colored, Valentine-style pre-fab diner (the boxy metal structures were mass-produced in the 1950s). With less than a dozen counter stools inside, you’ll probably end up sitting on the spacious front patio, which offers shaded picnic tables and views of Great Eastmark Park.
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Chef Adam Allison brings his food truck experience and farm-to-table sensibilities to bear on the menu, which offers elevated diner fare with the occasional Southern or global twist for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
For breakfast, Handlebar serves house-made pastries, bagels, breakfast burritos, and sandwiches. There’s also an extensive weekend brunch menu with hashes, build-your-own omelets, and egg plates.
For lunch or dinner, it’s hard to resist starters like the house-made, loaded tater tots, which are prepared either East-style or West-style. If you’re a sucker for loads of grizzled, slightly chewy pork belly (and who isn’t?), go for the East. Other appetizer menu standouts are buttery lobster rolls, chicken wings, and cheesy, nopales-studded nacho plates.
Try the Handlebar Burger for a juicy, nicely charred burger with all the fixings, or if chicken sandwiches are more your speed, don’t miss the cheekily named “Boy I Love Losing Super Bowls,” which features a crispy chicken breast tossed in a perfectly spicy Buffalo sauce and shellacked with pepper jack cheese for diner-level indulgence.