Having recently returned from a trip to the US, home of the famous diner, I approached my visit to this eponymous venue in Soho with a tinge of trepidation. There have been many a failed import of this classic themed restaurant over the years and I wondered whether The Diner would be another one lost in the confusion of soggy burgers, flimsy French fries and watery milkshakes… I was, however, in for a nice surprise.
Situated just off Carnaby Street, arguably one of London’s most famous thoroughfares and pinup of the swinging sixties, it seems quite fitting that an American restaurant theme synonymous with the mid twentieth century Rock ‘n’ Roll culture, stands attentively by its side. With such a fantastic location and a smart neon red exterior, I wondered whether this was the reason for the snaking queue at the door.
On stepping inside, you’ll see that it has all the characteristics of a classic diner. From the token swivel bar stools and padded booths to the neon signs and chrome napkin dispensers, there’s no denying they’ve got the decor to a T. If I go to a place called The Diner, hell I want it to resemble a diner! Yet, at the same time, it doesn’t go over board and in no way feels gimmicky, cheesy or a cliché but strikes a nice balance with modern London. Just take the beers for example; the main house beer on offer is a Camden Hells lager (£4). Rather than opt for a predictable Budweiser or Coors, they’ve gone for a locally brewed, once upon-a-time craft beer. Though you have the numerous diner-paraphernalia and retro American art deco, it’s in no way overwhelming. The bar itself with its open brick walls, elegant design and varied selection of spirits, looks more akin to a trendy boutique cocktail bar. There’s a definite feel of (dare I say) ‘hipster’ about the place. One look at the bar staff busily making cocktails and it’s clear to see that there are no aprons and rectangular hats here. Imagine the Fonz for a second. Now imagine the Fonz with a top-knot and tattoos. He probably works at The Diner.
The Food and Drinks
The menu is a sizeable beast. There are all day breakfasts, hot dogs, burgers, chicken wings, ribs, sharing baskets and even a Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Waffles option (£11.50). The Diner insist that no matter how particular your palate, something on the menu should take your fancy. We jumped straight in with a DCB or Diner Chicken Burger (£9.20). Stuffed with bacon, cheese and pickle and served on a bun sourced from a nearby artisan bakery called Rinkoff’s, it’s as tasty as it sounds. Etiquette went completely out the window here in a mix of oozing sauces and sticky fingers and those ubiquitous napkin dispensers turned out to be aptly indispensable. The fried chicken was crisp and tender, the bacon nice and salty and the melted cheese flowed out the sides, the way it should do. The list of burgers is quite something and in perusing the plethora of patties (try saying that with a mouth full of Rinkoff’s sesame bun), I was drawn to their ‘signature’ centre piece The Diablo (£10). An 8oz piece of beef, topped with streaky bacon, US cheese and Diner sauce, it was, by all accounts, devilishly good! It’s big, it’s calorific, it’s greasy but it’s oh so tasty. Both burgers were delicious and though it was a thoroughly messy affair, we loved every moment of it.
Onion Rings (£3.50) and Sweet Potato Fries (£3.50) made up our choice of sides and these added to the considerable amount of food we had before us. They are definitely not shy with their portion sizes here and if you think you can stomach it, try choosing some hard shakes to wash them down with. For the uninitiated among you, a hard shake is a milkshake with added ‘liquor’ and we chose a Colonel Parker (Bourbon, Vanilla Ice cream, Peanut Butter) and a Kraken (Kraken rum, Banana Ice Cream, Maple Syrup) both £8.50 and both fantastic.
After struggling to finish the mains and milkshakes, we were teetering on the edge of a self-induced food coma and so opted to share the final course. As you’d expect, there are a healthy amount of desserts on offer and in true American belt busting fashion, they follow a very unhealthy direction. Our choice, Cookies and Cream Cake (£6) was a huge slice of Oreo-esque wonderfulness. Avoiding the tendency of some cookie desserts to be quite dry, this had a lovely texture, a rich chocolatey flavour and to call it moreish would be an understatement. Sharing desserts has never been my thing and when my partner in crime took an untimely bathroom break, I decided to re-enact that famous scene in Friends where Joey, unable to restrain himself, eats his date’s dessert. In my case, she did not see the funny side of an empty plate and a smug, chocolate covered smile, but I too, was not even sorry.
By the end of my visit, my scepticism was replaced by a smitten glow; not to mention an aching midriff. The Diner does everything it sets out to do and more. It deftly avoids the usual pitfalls of a themed restaurant by giving you that extra quality and slick feel. It wants to be taken seriously and so it should be. An homage to an age gone by maybe, The Diner is firmly rooted in the modern day and more so, the modern day London.