Rosie and I have been living on peanuts …..and we are not really having such a high time every day. We go to the Horn & Hardart's Automat on West 47th. For lunch and for dinner, one nickel buys you a cup of good java, two buy a great small little pot of baked beans, for three nickels a girl can fill up on baked macaroni with cheese and paprika on top, and ten nickels gets her a Blue Plate Special. Soup to nuts for only six bits!
    (Memories of Evenings Past)
When I hear this term I think of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks a well known image of 20th-century art depicting an all-night diner where three customers linger under the fluorescent lights of an all-night 1950’s style diners. You know, like the ones that served thick milkshakes in tall, frosted glasses, sandwiches, burgers along with a selection of Blue Plate Specials. Not to be confused with Kmart's recently revived Blue Light Special, a Blue Plate Special is typically a dish of meat, potato, and vegetable served on a plate, usually blue, sometimes sectioned in three parts. Many restaurants today have them as specially priced meals.

Diner idioms are known to just about everyone, used by cooks, servers, and customers they have become unique ways to communicate about meals and other culinary creations, it is a language unto its own:

  • "Bossy in a bowl" = beef stew.
  • "Make it moo" = coffee with milk.
  • ”High and dry” = A plain sandwich without butter, mayonnaise or lettuce.
  • ”In the alley” = Serve it up as a side dish.
  • ”No cow” = Without milk.
  • ”Put out the lights and cry”= Liver and onions
  • ”Railroad it” = Customer is in a hurry or the server forgot to put the order in.
  • "Shivering Liz" = Jell-O
  • "Sweep the kitchen" = A plate of hash

Friendly neighborhood diners trace their origins all the way back to 1872, when Walter Scott, a handcart peddler put together a horse drawn wagon with a stove, decorated it with the words Walter Scott's Pioneer Lunch on the side of it, and roamed about the factory area of Providence, Rhode Island vending boiled eggs, sandwiches, and coffee for a nickel.

A decade later Sam Jones imagined a lunch wagon large enough to accommodate customers and cover them from the weather. Putting aside as much income as he could in 1887 Jones hit the street with his one of a kind walk-in eatery and within the next decade New England roads were teeming with lunch wagons on wheels so much so that city ordinances were enacted to limit their hours of business between sunrise and sunset. To get around these laws many merchants got rid of the wheels, hooked up to electricity, water and gas and set up their wagons as a permanent business.

One owner Patrick J. Tierney, named his pre-fabricated restaurants "dining cars," which was later condensed to 'diners' by his patrons and employees. The belief that diners were converted railroad cars is a myth; in reality the reverse is true. Streamlined locomotives of the 1930s motivated manufacturers to duplicate the long, sleek appearance and call them by the same name. By 1937 a million people a day were eating at least one meal out side the home , and by the onset of 1940s, there were nearly 10,000 diners open for business, fewer than 3,000 remain today.

Blue Plate Special as a phrase had its beginnings in print says the Oxford English Dictionary in a 1945 novel by Sinclair Lewis, it’s also the title of a story by Damon Runyon published in 1934, and today a Blue Plate Special is a band that serves up some 40's style swing. When digital texts of the New York Times became accessible, it was discovered that this cultural icon about a 4 pm special was recorded in that newspaper as far back as 1926.

So exactly how did the term 'Blue Plate Special' come about? In January 1929 the publication The Restaurant Man in an article called Quick Lunchplaces Have Own Vernacular a journalist wrote in his glossary of lunch place lingo:

    "A 'blue plate' is the label given a special daily combination of meat or fish, potatoes and vegetables, sold at a special price, and is ordered with the words, 'blue plate'".
Sometime during the Depression, a company started manufacturing plates with separate sections for each part of a meal; kind of like a frozen TV dinner and they were only available in the color blue. This meal on one plate instead of three became an economical saving on dishwashing and diners began using them to serve up their low priced daily specials. Eventually this term took on a life of its own among the many diners. For example, most of the them typically used plain white plates to serve all their meals, because of that, many would put their specials on a blue-rimmed plate to indicate it as a good value and call it their “Blue Plate Special.” Others used their “blue plates” to signify “the best” and it could make sense that it was associated with Blue Ribbon as in an award winning meal.

As the term spread across America it became a meal that was served at a reduced price to the patrons and the inspiration that it comes from a real blue plate on which the meal was served seems to be the more popular one among authorities. The Random House Webster's Dictionary describes it as: "a plate, often decorated with a blue willow pattern, divided by ridges into sections for holding apart several kinds of food".

From the online Culinary Corner, Daniel Rogov, offers his source for this colloquial adjective claiming the first use of blue-plate special was “on a menu of the Fred Harvey Restaurants on 22 October 1892.” Serving the traveling public the Fred Harvey restaurants were located along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. These “specials” were designed with the idea in mind to serve the passengers as quickly as possible since they were at the train stops for only a brief time . Rogov says, "As to why the term 'blue plate' - no mystery here. Fred Harvey bought nearly all his serving plates from a company in Illinois. Modeling their inexpensive but sturdy plates after those made famous by Josiah Wedgwood ... these were, of course, blue in color. Thus, quite literally, the 'blue plate' special".

While it's a little known fact that Arthur Dent ordered the Blue Plate Special when he stopped for a quick bite at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, most experts believe that the term originated from a blue plate of some kind originally served as a main course for lunch or dinner. Some of the plates were divided, others had a simple blue line, while some had a blue willow design or was an imitation of Wedgwood ware.


Blue Plate Special, anyone? The enduring legacy of the Diner:

Memories of Evenings Past: -

World Wide Words:


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