Book celebrates roadside eateries: Includes Altoona’s Tom & Joe’s, Baby’s and Diner 22
Along highways and in towns there are shiny, metal buildings of yesteryear. Inside, most house long Formica counters and tiny booths. The wait staff knows the regular patrons by their names. Scents of home cooked and fried foods fill the air. There is history and comfort inside of the walls of these American diners.
Chuck Fong of State College became inspired by these roadside restaurants when he saw a book about diners in a local library about 10 years ago. “There were some really great photos. When I looked more at the book I saw they were not photos, but were paintings. I was bitten by the bug and thought if I have some spare time I’ll visit diners and take snapshots,” he said.
Fong, a professional photographer and owner of Studio 2 by Chuck Fong, made time to visit these eateries often affectionately referred to as “greasy spoons.” He traveled a lot to these iconic stops — visiting 43 places in all — in the northeast and visited several in this region for his photographic book “Dinor Bleu, The Vanishing American Diner.”
He started casually visiting these eateries about nine years ago. “I was not serious about it until three to four years ago. Then I’d take road trips and map out diners. It was sometimes hard, because many are only open for breakfast and lunch so it’s difficult to visit many in a six hour period,” said Fong.
He set out to detail the nitty gritty in the life of these traditionally blue collar establishments.
“There’s an old timiness to them with the food and comradery. It’s the same three to four guys each morning who come in to talk. They schmooze with the server who has been there 30 years and talk back and forth,” Fong said.
He said many times he would get to the eating establishments early. “Sometimes it felt as if I was invading their space. Some had the exact same seats, in the same sequence,” Fong said.
There were very little photos of food taken, but more photos of the patrons and servers. Fong said, “I took them candidly and tried to shoot as quickly as possible, out of focus to capture the real feel of the diner.”
Locally, he visited Diner 22 in Alexandria, Baby’s in State College, The Diner in State College and a local favorite and icon, Tom & Joe’s Restaurant in Altoona.
“The friendliest one I visited was Tom & Joe’s. It has a third generation owner. I’ve been there about five times in six to seven years and each time I walked in there George (the owner) was so friendly and would say, ‘Hey Chuck.’ It’s the best diner as far as being sociable and talking. They tease and have fun. I wish there were more diners like that,” said Fong.
While at Tom & Joe’s, Fong captured George and others in action. “I took photos for the book. There are photos of him, his mom and longtime server Tara, who has been there 17 years. I took photos of all three of them,” he said.
George Batrus, owner of Tom & Joe’s, appreciated that Fong thought his diner is the friendliest around.
“Coming from him I took it as quite a compliment. He told me that as well prefaced that he was not just saying it because he was taking to me; I really felt that. He’s been to so many diners and restaurants like ours and been to so many places that it’s a real compliment,” Batrus said.
Tom & Joe’s has been a staple of Altoona for 86 years. “I’m a third generation owner. My grandfather Tom started it in 1933, then my dad ran and operated it,” Batrus said.
In 1933 Tom & Joe’s was across the street in a small house. It moved in 1950 to its current location, then in a diner car. In 1956, that car was taken out and the new building that is there today was constructed.
Batrus is humbled that Fong chose to include Tom & Joe’s in his book. He said, “It’s a neat honor. Diners are a dying breed; there’s not many like ours around. It’s an honor to be in that book and to be part of that is really cool.”
Including the photos taken at Tom & Joes, the book includes 160 pages and more than 40 historic diners that, as Fong said in an email, illustrate “the grittiness, grease and sweat of owning and working in a family owned diner.”
“Dinor Bleu, The Vanishing American Diner,” published in July and available on Amazon, includes four diners that have recently closed since the book was published.
Fong is glad he captured the beauty of yesteryear and the soul of diners with his book. He said, “Many are disappearing as there’s a change in eating habits and with more fast food places. When a corporation comes in, how can the mom and pop diner compete with that?”
The book is available through Amazon.