Diners are a uniquely American-style restaurant with a distinctive look and menu that can be found virtually everywhere across the U.S. Often built to resemble a railroad dining car, clad in shiny stainless steel with large windows, they typically feature padded vinyl seats and an art deco theme. They specialize in so-called comfort food: simple, filling and inexpensive.
But an innovative chef has taken the popular diner concept to a whole new culinary level. What sets the Silver Diner apart is its menu, which keeps customers coming back.
“I like the food. It’s fresh, it’s good,” said 19-year-old Ashley Holt, who was dining with a group of her friends. “I would come here more often especially because it’s a lot healthier."
“Great atmosphere, quick service and great food!” said Sergeant First Class Norman Bailey, as his uniformed friends at the table nodded in agreement.
Founders Chef Ype Von Hengst (right and Robert Giaimo during construction of the first Silver Diner in 1989. (Courtesy of Silver Diner)
That great food comes courtesy of Executive Chef Ype Von Hengst, who co-founded the first Silver Diner with his partner Bob Giaimo 25 years ago. The men spent a year visiting diners all across the country to better understand how this classic American eatery had endured for more than a century… and how best to add an individual touch to one of their own.
“We wanted to create an atmosphere where families wanted to go with their kids and [have] not just a great atmosphere but also better food,” Ype explained.
One of the most popular breakfast items on the menu: Chorizo sausage, bison, black beans, rice, goat cheese, eggs, guacamole, salsa roja, multi-grain tortillas. (Julia Taboh / VOA)
Healthier food options
So they decided to offer healthier versions of traditional diner food, like pancakes, burgers and meatloaf. Their pancakes are made with unbleached flour and the meat is free of antibiotics and hormones… which was good news for customer Nicholas Hurysh, who was there for the pot roast.
“I had it last week and it was so good I’m doing it again!" he admitted.
When business slowed during the 2009 recession, Chef Ype took his commitment to good food a step further, by adding more options to their menu. “We started preparing healthier local food, fresh food, vegan, vegetarian; giving people the lifestyle and the options that they want nowadays.”
Chef Ype and Giaimo have partnered with more than 15 local farms to incorporate even more fresh ingredients into their recipes, with delicious results.
“It’s my moral obligation that I need to provide a better product for people," he said, "and when I did, surprisingly, and somehow not surprisingly, we noticed that the volume started coming back and over the last three years we have gone up by 30% in customer count, which is phenomenal.”
One of those customers is 19-year-old Logan Hare, who has a taste for bison, which is on the menu because chef Ype has been able to find it locally.
“I got bison because I didn’t actually know they had it and I was surprised that they did because bison is so hard to come by sometimes,” Hare said, adding, “And I bet it’s going to be pretty good!”
Chef Ype with farmer Chris Parker, July 29, 2014. (Julia Taboh/VOA)
From farm to table
On a recent sunny day, Chef Ype helped pick zucchini and yellow squash with Chris Parker at Parker's family farm a short distance from the Waldorf diner. He's been supplying the restaurant with fresh produce for years. They wandered through the green fields, picking through the sun-ripened vegetables as the chef delighted in the abundance of the colorful crops.
“If we could get all the restaurants in Washington, D.C. to commit to local produce, it would be a great thing for business,” Parker noted.
That evening, Chef Ype incorporated the produce he had helped pick earlier that day into one of the many non-traditional dishes he serves on his menu; stir-fried pasta primavera.
Chef Ype Von Hengst greets customers at the Silver Diner in Waldorf, MD. (Julia Taboh / VOA)
Not a fad
“This is not a fad,” said the award-winning chef. “This is here to stay. People are going to want healthier food. They’re going to want better food… If you don't jump on this, you're going to be out of business.”
Today, Ype and Giaimo own 15 Silver Diners, almost all in the Washington, D.C. area, serving 10,000 customers a week with tasty, nutritious food, and a generous dose of caring on the side.
“This is my passion,” said Ype. “If you don’t have a passion for what you are doing, you really need to get out of it.”