The 66 Diner

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Troy Hendrick

Along American roadways there is probably no more appealing example of cultural iconography than the simple chrome-plated diner. Defining the "fast" food concept of the time, they were everywhere in the fifties; and Route 66, the nation's first cross-country highway, supported its fair share of them. The heyday for both has long passed, but nostalgia for that giddy post-war era has remained strong. So, it made perfect sense when a restaurant designed with that evocative atmosphere in mind - The 66 Diner in downtown Albuquerque - opened right off Route 66.

In business since 1987, the place is a throwback to that period in American pop culture when diners helped introduce rock 'n' roll to the far-flung masses via the jukebox. A time when parents thought Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis and the jukebox were dangerous agents in a secret plot to murder innocence by enflaming adolescent libidos. Pony-tailed Peggy Sues in poodle skirts kissed their first boys in booths there. Milkshakes slid down the countertops after the high school games, and one thin dime sent another platter whirling at 45rpm. Whenever teen-aged cruisers grew tired of rumbling up and down the main drag, the juke joint became each town's social hotspot. Kids finally had another place to gather that didn't look or feel like a church annex or a high-school gymnasium. These shiny soda-and-burger stops were the setting in which a slew of Baby Boomers came of age in an era that reformed the American psyche, making it younger, hipper and sexier.

Of course, other diners were extant before and during the fifties. More disreputable, dingy in comparison to those polished teen haunts in the suburbs, these places appealed to transients, loners, bread-line refugees, and certainly motorcyclists. With a masterwork called "Nighthawks," the great American artist Edward Hopper captured the essence of this diner in 1942 for all time. Later, the bohemians became regulars, and some of the Beats began writing and reading their wired scats in these city diners. They served good food and coffee to folks living on a budget, and many have managed to survive. Some still thrive.

Albuquerque's 66 Diner honors this culture, and its personality makes it more a museum than the genuine artifact. On the one hand, it's an anachronism that opened nearly 30 years after the end of the jukebox era, but there's no doubt that it's an excellent tribute to a fading era in American pop culture.

Neon lights run the length of the square building, culminating at the center in a U.S. Highway-shaped sign casting "66 Diner" in a pink and baby blue glow. An oval plate of glass along the front, like a picture window for a submarine, displays a glimpse of the glistening chrome and Coca-Cola red countertop inside. The servers all wear button-down shirts or candy-striped vests. Behind the countertop, chrome milkshake machines buzz and whir as college kids stir up creamy calories, and orders are passed through the window into the kitchen. A handsome jukebox wedged in the corner is always at the ready to spin songs like Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" and the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" (interestingly, the first 66 Diner burned down in 1995, and the jukebox, a 1958 Seeburg, was one of the few items retrieved undamaged).

But with all these retro bells and whistles, something important is missing - a genuine enthusiasm and energy the employees must have displayed in the real thing 50 years ago. Even though I tried to engage her, my waitress wouldn't speak of anything beyond my order. I asked a milkshake artist behind the counter what he thought about diners as a piece of American history, thinking he might proudly validate his job with some informative cultural snippet. His response? "It's just a job, dude." I didn't expect any 'golly-gee' affability amid the shine and sparkle, but I did think management would have taken steps to mitigate the glum apathy of these Generation PlayStation hires with a training session or two about customer service expectations. Times have changed, and the real thing just doesn't exist anymore.

On the other hand, and as important as the be-bop style diner of the '50s it replicates, is the establishment's homage to another vanishing piece of America - Route 66 and the roadside diner.

America's Highway ran 2,448 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles. It covered eight states and symbolized the very essence of life on the road. It didn't take long for people like Jack Kerouac and Steve McQueen to convince a generation of Americans that true freedom could be found if the wheels just kept turning. So, in some ways it can be said that Route 66 was a major vein feeding the heart of American freedom. Today, just like the juke joint, Route 66 has become more a museum than anything else. It still exists, but mostly as broken-down service roads to the interstate, and renamed main streets like Albuquerque's Central Avenue.

But on The 66 Diner walls, black-and-white pictures, windows into the past, give patrons a glimpse of what it was all about. Beautiful color images also capture spots along the Mother Road in their most enchanting light, and play on the dream to make the journey that epitomized liberation to a generation. Drawn on a sidewall is a huge outline of the U.S., with a snaking line from Chicago to Los Angeles. Three clocks, each set to their respective longitude's time zone, tick above it. Route 66 takes you west, and the West held such promise in a time when it was still a vast, unpopulated expanse. To some extent, riding the Mother Road still offers people that feeling of freedom, but it will never be what it was. The creators of The 66 Diner seem to understand this natural cycle, and the place does its part as a tribute and a museum. The old days are gone, and it would be cheesy to try to relive them, but that doesn't mean they should be forgotten.

True diners still exist. They're the ones that have been around for a very long time. They have good, usually greasy food for a low price. But those bright diners of the fifties that became social hubs for a generation are all but gone. And, sadly, the super slab has replaced most of the Mother Road. The 66 Diner preserves a little slice of a happy era along a historical stretch of pavement in Albuquerque. Other criticisms aside, I hope it remains there lest anyone forget that the roadside diner appealed to something very special in us as Americans - our favorite dream, freedom.