Some people restore cars. Barry Brown and his wife Sam Choi-Brown took it one step further — they restored a diner.
“Diners fit with cars, cars fit with diners,” said Brown, the owner of Pal’s Diner, 6503 28th St SE, the home of this year’s “DreamWheels!” production. “They’re both restored items. They’re both unique to look at.”
Those classic American diners that dotted much of the United States landscape in the fifties and sixties actually were an extension of the wagon carts that would come to sell food to employees at businesses and manufacturing sites. Walter Scott is credited with creating the first diner in 1872, a horse-pulled wagon he would bring to employees at the Providence Journal in Rhode Island.
However, it wasn’t until the late 1930s that the diner began to be prefabricated into the familiar shape of a railroad car.
“People often think that the diners were old railway cars,” Brown said. “They weren’t. They were just designed to look that way.”
In fact, it was Roland Stickney who inspired by the streamlined trains, especially the Burlington Zephyr, who designed a diner in the shape of railroad car calling it the Sterling Streamliner. That railroad-style would carry on much through the history of the classic diner until about the 1970s when fast food restaurants began to dominate.
Like a mobile home, the original diner is narrow and elongated to allow for roadway transportation. In fact, it was by road in 1993 that the Browns transported Pal’s Diner from New Jersey to Grand Rapids. It was a 950-mile trip that included getting permission from four state road commissions to shut down major roadways and utilize the highways, not to mention a cost that was well into six figures.
And while the move was about 23 years ago, Brown can still remember it like it had happened yesterday.
“It took a lot of guts,” Brown said with a laugh. “But I will tell you that Sam and I were partners in this together. I sat down with her and we talked about it and we knew, that if we did this, we had to be partners.”
The couple could sense that if they did not move the now 62-year-old diner it would be lost like so many others. The land lease where the diner sat in New Jersey was up. Several others had looked at moving it, but passed. The Browns were the last ditch effort to save it with Pal’s former patrons and staff knowing it.
“It was a sad day when it left New Jersey, but it was good because it was going to be saved,” Brown said.
When the diner finally got here was when the real work started for the Browns because just like a classic car, to rebuild you have to start from the ground up taking everything down and putting it all back together the right way. The restoration and finding its current home took about three years.
Now open since 1996, Pal’s Diner succeeds in allowing each visitor to touch the past. Like traditional diner floor plans, the service counter dominates. Accented in pinks, seating is along the sides of the car with a Wall of Fame area — featuring pictures of celebrities such as One Direction who have visited the diner along with the diner’s history — just before the bathrooms. The main kitchen is through the swinging doors.
Brown takes pride in that they still make shakes the ol’ fashioned way — by hand — and the restaurant features classic fifties’ fare.
But the true success is just like the diner owners of the past, the Browns have made a lot of friends, sharing a lot of stories and memories with all who have walked through Pal’s doors.
“The people we’ve gotten to know, the people we’ve lost that have passed away they are like family,” Brown said. “My wife knows birthdays and everything with a lot people. That means a lot.”
Come to Pal’s Diner Saturday, Aug. 27 as WKTV shares more stories about the people like Brown who are dedicated to preserving a piece of American history by restoring classic cars. The show runs from 6 – 7:30 p.m.
Make sure to check out the “DreamWheels” show which will be broadcasting live Saturday, Aug. 27 from 6 – 7:30 p.m. at Pal’s Diner, 6503 28th St. SE, and Rogers Plaza, 972 28th St. SW. The show will air Saturday, Sept. 3, at 7 p.m. on WKTV Channel 25.