A former Route 66 diner near Roosevelt Row creates an atmosphere that stimulates appetites, conversation and nostalgia.
“It was love at first sight,” attorney Robert Young, now 81, says of the moment nearly 40 years ago when he saw a shuttered diner for sale on Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. Young purchased the unusual little diner and had it moved to Downtown Phoenix. Soon after, people in the Northern Arizona town called, imploring him to return it. “They realized the mistake they made in allowing it to slip through their fingers,” Young says.
Williams’ loss was the Garfield neighborhood’s gain, because this is no ordinary greasy spoon. It is, in fact, a living culinary museum – one of a limited number of micro-size, transportable eateries manufactured post-War. Fittingly, it’s had a short but dynamic history in the Valley, keying the area’s revitalization as Welcome Diner before a recent rebranding.
It was one of an estimated 3,500 diners built by Valentine Manufacturing in Wichita, Kansas. Arthur Valentine founded the company in 1947 and made prefabricated diners for almost 20 years. Valentine shipped the fully equipped mobile restaurants – more akin to manufactured homes than trailers – across the country to enterprising folks. They varied from the nine-stool, 250-square-foot Little Chef variety that could serve nine people to the Double Deluxe, which between stools and booths could accommodate 36. “Because of their small size, Valentines could be transported economically,” Richard Gutman, who has authored four books on diners, says. “Their relative ease of transport and efficient operation are among the reasons for their survival and appeal today.”
A diner – derived from the “dining car” on locomotives – could be operational within hours after being placed on a concrete slab and hooked up to utilities. The 10-foot-by-25-foot structure came complete with pots, dishes, glasses and silverware. “Valentine was a genius,” Young says. “He saw a need to create for the ‘little guy’ the means to accomplish the ultimate dream: business ownership… It was the quintessential mom and pop operation.”
Valentine Manufacturing also provided financing. Would-be hash-slingers could purchase their own diner for $3,300 in monthly installments by placing 10 percent of each day’s profits in a small wall safe inside the door. A company representative regularly visited to collect the money. An overdue bill brought the threat of removing the diner.
Six Valentine diners operated along Route 66 in Arizona after World War II – in Holbrook, Winslow (which boasted two Valentines), Twin Arrows, Flagstaff and Williams. “These diners were open 24 hours,” says Daniel Zilka, architect and director of the American Diner Museum in Providence, Rhode Island. “You got the key to the door and you threw it away because you never closed. Truckers and tourists could stop for a quick, affordable meal.” Diners developed their own jargon; a call for “Blowout patches smothered in axle grease and a cup of mud” was code for an order of pancakes with butter, and coffee.
Young was looking through The Arizona Republic’s classified section in 1979 when he saw a diner for sale for $3,400 in Williams. Intrigued, he drove north to see the Hi-Way Diner. Diners are identified by manufacturer and model, each with a serial number, and this one was Valentine Little Chef No. 683. “It didn’t look like it had been used for easily a decade. The Valentine diners just couldn’t compete with fast-food restaurants,” Young laments.
He purchased the diner, had it hauled to Phoenix on a flatbed truck, and three years later set it on a vacant lot he owned at the corner of Roosevelt and 10th streets. He renamed it Lil Robert’s Diner after his son, and it sat idle for more than two decades, becoming a graffiti magnet. The city wasn’t much help, as it considered the diner an eyesore. “[But] historic building consultant Roger Brevoort saw the merit in the diner and helped me convince the Phoenix Historic Preservation Office that it was worth saving,” Young says.
In 2003, the diner came to life when restaurateur Sloane McFarland leased, renovated and opened the Welcome Diner. It attracted a huge following when operators of the late Old Dixie’s Food Truck, Michael Babcock and his wife, Jenn Robinson, took over the grill and began offering fun plays on Southern comfort food – vegan jackfruit po’boy sandwiches, fries with pulled pork – in 2013. In an unusual twist, the diner stayed put, but the business moved on. McFarland and Babcock left in June 2018 to open the new Welcome Diner in a building a few blocks away at 929 E. Pierce St. (See page 121.) Meanwhile, the 1940s diner is reopening as the Roosevelt Diner, leased from Young and operated by restaurateur Kenny Dong of Stingers Sports Bar and Sushi Loco.
How did a puny diner with a walk-up window find success in Phoenix? “It’s a huge novelty, and it thrives with the added outdoor dining area,” Young says. “Even during the winter months, people love eating outside until late at night, with a little assistance from propane heaters. The cocktails the diner offers seem to serve as antifreeze.” At press time, the Roosevelt Diner’s grand opening was scheduled for September. Chef Joey Calderone plans a seasonally rotating menu, with a half-dozen signature dishes including a waffle Monte Cristo and a vegetarian beet burger, which “bleeds like beef.”
Dong is eager for the diner to become a neighborhood hangout. He’s known Young for decades, and they share the same appreciation for the diner’s history. “Robert isn’t in it for the money, he just wants people to appreciate the diner,” Dong says “These things are almost extinct; to have one near Downtown is just fabulous.”
The social aspect is central to the experience. “Diners are intimate community gathering places without regards to class, where lawyers, salesmen and vagabonds rub shoulders,” Zilka says. “What’s special is the interaction between customers, the banter with the server and the sounds and smells from the nearby grill as food is being prepared.” Zilka applauds Young’s preservation efforts. “Unlike a movie theater or bowling alley, you can pick up a diner and move it,” he says. “It’s an absolute sin to see people demolishing them because they’re so transportable.”
Young’s passion for diners sparkles like the stainless steel surfaces at Roosevelt Diner. He spins a stool while trumpeting the role diners played in shaping Route 66. He has a soft spot for the lone Valentine diner in Winslow, but thinks it should remain on the Mother Road. “Perhaps in my next life I can come back to fulfill my dream of flipping hamburgers at the Little Chef diner in Winslow.”
Other Valentine Little Chef diners in Arizona:
Dot’s Diner (No. 1746) was originally located in Los Angeles. The diner was relocated to the retro digs of The Shady Dell RV Park in 1996 and operated until 2011.
The diner was used as a concession stand in Lane, Kansas. In 2016, it was moved to become the Night Owl Diner (No. 1228), used for private functions.
Handlebar Diner (No. 684) was originally located in Loveland, Colorado. In 2015, the farm-to-table operation opened in the Eastmark development.
Valentine diner (No. 548) originally opened in Holbrook before being moved to St. Johns, and then to its present location. It operated as the Route 66 Diner before closing in 2012.
The Twin Arrows Cafe (number unknown) was part of the Twin Arrows Trading Post and has been closed since the early 1990s.
The Hi-Way Diner (No. 682; same name as the Williams diner) opened in 1946 across from La Posada Hotel and remained in business until 2005.