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THE American diner is making a comeback after being edged out by fast food

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PITTSBURGH (AP) _ The arrival of the billion-burger-serving fast food chains seemed to clang the death knell for the American diner, but diner enthusiasts gathering in Pennsylvania this weekend are celebrating signs of a resurgence.

As the American Diner Museum holds its fifth-annual conference, the nation's oldest diner manufacturer is increasing its diner production, and two restaurant giants are remodeling franchises in the diner style.

When drive-ins and fast food captured the nation's attention in the 1950s and '60s, diners began suffering an image problem, said Brian Butko, co-author of ``Diners of Pennsylvania.''

``There was a greasy spoon image diners had,'' Butko said. ``What was shiny, new and exotic started looking like yesterday's idea, and it's no coincidence you saw the rise of fast food and family-style restaurants like McDonald's and Denny's.''

The number of diners dropped from 6,000 at its peak in the 1950s to about 2,500 today.

But the idea of diners is recapturing the nation's interest again.

``We started seeing the first signs of a comeback 10 years ago,'' said John Lefkus, chief executive of Kullman Industries Inc., the oldest original diner producer in existence.

His New Jersey-based company is now shifting much of its production back to the diner business after a 40-year hiatus.

Kullman had turned its focus to schools, hospitals and telecommunications companies after all of the other original diner producers collapsed in New Jersey, historically the capital of the diner industry. Now, Lefkus said, 20 to 30 percent of Kullman's business is back in the food service industry.

The first commercial production of the diner began in Worcester, Mass., in 1881, with a longer structure being shipped out on flatbed railroad cars, hence the word diner, or dinner car, said Daniel Zilka, director of the American Diner Museum in Providence, R.I.

The largest boom occurred when soldiers returned from World War II with money to begin their own businesses and new materials, including the familiar brushed steel, glass block and Formica.

Diners are somewhat of a marker in the country's democratic history.

When the women's suffrage movement went into full swing, women chose diners, a place dominated by male patrons, to make their point, Zilka said. It was also one of the first places women entered the work force when World War II began.

In the 1960s, civil rights activists fought segregation from the stools at diner lunch counters.

But by the 1960s, diners were in decline. Drive-up restaurants and Ray Kroc's revolutionary fast food chain, McDonald's, fed America's infatuation with the car.

In an unusual twist, both McDonald's and Denny's Restaurants are now revamping some franchises to look like diners.

McDonald's recently opened its first and only diner-style restaurant in Kokomo, Ind., said spokeswoman Lisa Howard.

``People have gone crazy over this place and there's sometimes a line for a table,'' she said. ``Kids can still get a Happy Meal, mom can have a club sandwich and dad can get a turkey steak with mashed potatoes.''

Denny's has remodeled 20 percent of its 1,822 restaurants in the diner style, and spokeswoman Debbie Atkins said new franchises are being built in diner style.

``A lot of franchises are trying to capitalize on what was once a very large part of Americana,'' said Zilka, of the Diner Museum. ``I don't know if they can really pull it off, but the country seems to be saying this is something maybe they don't want to let go.''
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