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Giaimo and Von Hengst opened the first Silver Diner in 1989

Bob Giaimo doesn’t come right out and contradict my assertion that classic diners are recession-proof, but he believes those diners that cling to a greasy nostalgia, at the expense of innovation, are bound to lose customers, plain and simple. Giaimo should know. He’s the founder and president/CEO of Silver Diner, Inc., the Rockville-based corporation that owns the majority of 19 restaurants in three states.

Now hold on. I know what you’re thinking. Corporations and diners are the vinegar and oil of the hospitality industry. Diners are supposed to amuse us (if not abuse us), comfort us, stuff us, and serve us that third cup of mud even if we don’t ask for it (and don’t want it). Corporations are supposed to make money. A corporate diner is like a corporate dive bar or a corporate barbecue shack; few will trust the executives atop the company hierarchy to think of anything but the bottom line. (Even with a chain like Silver Diner, which employs “operating partners,” who live within five miles of their particular location and own about seven percent of it.)

Giaimo clearly has his eye on sales when he talks about the Silver Diner’s future, particularly its aging hub in Rockville, which will move to a spacious new spot on the Pike next year. But just as clear is Giaimo’s affection for the classic diner, both its neon-and-chrome aesthetics and its grease-drenched menu. He’s not looking to kill off those features; he just wants to augment them.

So what has the Silver Diner done for its 20th anniversary? To start with, it has revamped its menus; specifically, it has created a whole new line of blue plate specials for both traditionalists and health nuts. Along with an open-faced turkey sandwich and meatloaf, you can now order grilled wasabi salmon sliders, Asian skewered chicken with wild rice, and low-fat strawberry angel cake.

I know, I know. Those items scream “diner” like Miley Cyrus screams “death metal.” But to Giaimo’s mind, the very generation that grew up with diners, the boomers, are the ones now demanding changes. You either cater to the boomers’ demands or you lose them to more sympathetic restaurants.

“Baby boomers have flipped things around,” Giaimo says, nothing that it used to be the younger generation that wanted healthy food. “Now the baby boomers don’t want to die, and they are pressing for healthier food much more than the younger diners.”

Twenty years ago when Giaimo and Ype Von Hengst founded the Silver Diner in Rockville, only about five percent of their menu was considered healthy, Giaimo notes. With the new line of dishes, that number has quadrupled to 20 percent. If you don’t consider grilled flounder or vegetarian stir-fry “diner food,” then Giaimo suggests you might want to widen your definition. Diners, after all, have a long history of adapting to change, from lunch wagons to dining cars to sturdy stone facades like that one over at the Amphora in Vienna.

“That’s not what diner food was,” Giaimo says about the healthy options. “I think it’s about choice. I think diners are American, and America is about choice.”

I have to admit, as the founder filled me with more Silver Diner spin, I had to grapple with my own biases about these retro eateries. Truth be told, I’m much more inclined to visit small historic joints like the forthcoming Capital City Diner, scheduled to open this summer in Trinidad (if there are no more surprises), than I am a Silver Diner outlet.

This bias is bizarre when I think about it. My affection for the diner grows out of a misplaced nostalgia —- for a history that I didn’t even experience personally. I have this innate love for greasy spoons (probably a journalist thing since we all tend to romanticize blue-collar workers, while trying like hell not to live like one), for railroad cars (hey, I grew up in Omaha), and for sitting in big fake-leather booths and punching in my favorite songs. In fact, I never step foot in a diner unless I’m willing to do the following three things:

  • Spend 10 minutes reading over a menu longer than Atlas Shrugged
  • Drink the worst coffee this side of Sanka
  • Eat more calories than a sea cow

My ideal diner would no doubt bleed money like a ’90s-era start-up, which is why I write about restaurants and not run them. Much of what Giaimo tells me just sounds like smart business. Not only has Silver Diner upgraded its menus, but the company has updated its jukeboxes. They’re not ditching the Drifters, the Kingston Trio, or Dion; they’re just adding Boston, Steve Miller, Pat Benatar, Journey, U2, and other folks from the ’70s and ’80s. (I’m totally making up the artists here; Silver Diner employs a full-time music programmer, Jay Neil, who stocks the jukeboxes in what has to be the best job on earth.)

But the biggest change for the Silver Diner will be…well, the original Silver Diner itself. The founders are abandoning their towering, gleaming structure in Rockville for an even more towering and gleaming structure just a quarter mile down the Pike. The new $4.5 million, 10,000-square-foot diner, says Giaimo, will be “lit up like a spaceship.” The founder wanted to say “Las Vegas,” but he couldn’t bring himself to compare a diner to Sin City.

He’s not kidding, though, about the neon. The owners plan to illuminate their new diner so brightly that they had to secure eight different sign variances from the city of Rockville, Giaimo says. All that excess and space is needed, the president says, because the current location is already operating beyond its capacity. He calls the Rockville location “one of the busiest restaurants of its size in the United States.” It feeds 10,000 diners per week, he says, but the restaurant requires many turns a night to hit those numbers, which taxes every one of his employees, from hostess to cooks to bus boys.

The new Silver Diner will seat about 250 customers and, just as important, will feature a modern kitchen capable of handling the stress of so many diners. The bigger and better diner is expected to open in the spring of 2010, Giaimo says, at which time they will close down the old restaurant and raze it.

But isn’t tossing away an old diner really an anti-diner philosophy? I put the question to Giaimo because, to my mind, diners are about history. Giaimo is sympathetic to that view, which why he’s planning to donate much of the old structure to a diner museum, but he also acknowledges that he has a business to run. The old spot has taken a beating. It doesn’t serve either the customers or the staff well.

“If you stay the same, you’re going to be a diner, but your customer base is going to shrink,” Giaimo says. “We have plenty of data to back that up.”