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The Taste of Nostalgia

Visiting 29 Diner in Fairfax.

Wait staff and cooks, from left, Barbara “Barbie” Gollick and Angie Brosen, display one of the several holiday t-shirts for the 29 Diner and their Santa hats.

Wait staff and cooks, from left, Barbara “Barbie” Gollick and Angie Brosen, display one of the several holiday t-shirts for the 29 Diner and their Santa hats. Photo by Nancy Jennis Olds

Growing up in Northern New Jersey in the 60s and 70s where diners ruled magnificently, it was a real treat when my husband Jan urged me to visit the 29 Diner located conveniently on Route 29 (Lee Highway) and Route 123 in Fairfax. Whenever we are on the road, we prefer diners to fast food restaurants, and this one was no exception.

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View of the 29 Diner. This Moderne streamline style building with Art Deco elements has carried on since 1947. The 29 Diner has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1992.

The 29 Diner is refreshingly amiable in appearance. The gleaming stainless steel structure with the bright blue awnings and deep blue rails has aged well with time. The brick trim base contrasts nicely and the thick glass blocks in the exterior’s front wall gleam on sunny days. The tall red signpost in front of the diner indicates that this diner is open 24 hours a day. An American flag attached to the red pole swings below the sign, contrasting nicely with the diner’s colors.

Take a look inside and the formica counters, shiny stools, gleaming walls, sturdy tables, blue padded booths and the hearty smell of food cooking on the grill welcome the hungry visitor. The cozy interior, one wall decorated with children’s drawings dedicated to the 29 Diner, a standing updated jukebox and smaller versions mounted for each table, radiate comfort and familiarity. The diner only takes cash, so a freestanding ATM is set up for the customer’s convenience. The wait staff and cooks, Barbara “Barbie” Gollick and Angie Brosen, especially prepared for the holidays, proudly displayed one of the several custom designed tees that were introduced this year for the first time. They mentioned that loyal customers have been coming to the 29 Diner for over 20 years, many of them coming daily.

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29 Diner interior: everything is reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s. However, the jukebox is a new digital version.

DINERS come in all shapes and sizes, but they all share the pre-fabricated structures built at an assembly site and later transported to a permanent location. The stainless steel structure resembles a dining car on a train. Sometimes railroad cars and decommissioned trolleys were converted into diners out of economic necessity. The origins of diners can also be traced to 19th century lunch wagons, which offered city workers inexpensive meals at times more convenient with their work schedules. The lunch wagons’ rising success prompted cities to promote ordinances restricting their hours of operations and forcing the owners to set up a semi-permanent location. The first diner is considered to be the Pioneer Lunch Wagon operated by entrepreneur Walter Scott from Providence, R.I., in 1872.

Diners became increasingly popular after World War II when the returning vets were beginning to raise their families in emerging suburbs and were looking for dining establishments with home cooking, convenience, a family friendly atmosphere and budget conscious menus.

The 29 Diner opened its doors on July 20, 1947. The Mountain View Diner Company, established in 1939 by owners Henry Strys and Les Daniel and in operation until 1957, in Singac, N.J., built the 29 Diner. The diner was built in the Streamline Moderne style with elements of 1930s Art Deco to very exacting standards. The original owner, (Delmas) D.T. “Bill” Glascock (died in 1999), had the completed diner shipped to land he owned in Fairfax, today’s Route 29. Glascock and his wife Elvira “Curly” (died in 2007), ran the diner for several years, later leasing the diner to a succession of several business owners until the Tastee Diner Company (these diners still exist in Laurel, Bethesda and Silver Spring, Md.) bought the diner in 1972 and changed the name to the Tastee 29 Diner.

Marc Christian Wagner, an architectural historian with the Charlottesville organization Preservation Associates of Virginia, successfully pressed for the Tastee 29 Diner to be inducted in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Wagner’s opening sentence in his statement of significance, which appears in Wikipedia about the 29 Diner, is as follows:

“The Tastee 29 Diner is a rare survivor among the once-numerous streamlined Moderns [sic] diners that operated in the United States. While it is rare to find one of these 1940's diners still standing, it is even more unusual to find one still in operation. The high quality of this Mountain View diner has withstood the test of time in a hostile environment."

In the late 1990s, Ginger Guevera, who worked as a waitress at the 29 Diner starting when she was 16 years old in 1966, purchased the diner and restored the original 29 Diner name. Her former husband Fredy Guevera is the diner’s manager.

THE 29 DINER’S CLAIM TO FAME has been several appearances in Bill Griffith’s “Zippy the Pinhead” comic strip from July 23, 2003 to April 21, 2012. Retiring mayor of the City of Fairfax Robert Lederer made it an annual tradition to dine at the 29 Diner on Thanksgiving. Famous crime solver John Walsh, host of television’s “America’s Most Wanted,” made a visit to the diner in 1999 accompanied by two bodyguards.

One state, Massachusetts, has recognized the historical significance of the classic diners. The Massachusetts Historical Commission has placed all of their vintage diners, those still in operation, on the National Register of Historic Places. Along with nominations from other states, the list of diners on the National Register is increasing annually. Not only are these buildings being recognized, but also there is a strong effort to retain and support the diner culture, which promotes a convivial family and social environment.

Next time you visit the 29 Diner, remember that not only are you having a delicious home cooked meal, a hot steamy cup of coffee or a root beer, you are having a classic slice of Americana.