Prefab diners are like the Airstream trailer of the restaurant world — but they aren't always a trailer or a former rail car, as some people think.
While drive-ins were springing up in California, prefab diners — where patrons sat on bar stools and booths while food was cooked inches away — sprang up on the East Coast. Neighborhoods there were already built out, so a compact diner made sense.
Now that Mountain View is increasing in density the concept fits better: Yet another 1950s trend that won't go away, Mertl joked.
Used as a functioning diner up until a few years ago, Mertl's 576-square-foot 1938 Sterling, which he bought for $7,300, has aged as well as a 1957 Chevy. It can be disassembled and will be restored in his shop, B & L Auto on Middlefield Road.
The diner is currently sitting in a Massachusetts warehouse, waiting for the OK from the city's zoning administrator to issue a zoning variance next month. If approved, it will be trucked across the country and, eventually, serve breakfast and lunch on a landscaped area in front of B & L Auto.
It's an unusual project, Mertl said, and at first city officials didn't know what to make of it. But slowly it gained the support and excitement of city officials, he said.
Mertl said he's pursued the diner because he likes to collect all things vintage, such as jukeboxes and Chris-Craft boats. But he believes the diner will serve an important purpose for the neighborhood — and for himself, a self-described "picky eater."
"We're doing it for the food," Mertl emphasized. "No matter what kind of place you have, if the food isn't good you aren't going back. I really think we need a down-home, family-cooked meal here. One of my second loves is cooking food for people, home-style food, like corned beef pastrami sandwiches. I'm actually going to serve food you can't get here."
Mertl said there used to be some good places to eat in the neighborhood, like Woody's, a popular diner once located where the Toyota dealer is now on Middlefield Road. But like most other breakfast and lunch places, it fell by the wayside as real estate was snapped up.
Mertl imagines his diner will be a gathering spot for the mechanics and shop employees on Middlefield as well as for the proposed housing development across the street — not to mention the whole Monta Loma neighborhood and those northward.
"Everybody wants to work" at the proposed diner, Mertl said. A cook is already lined up, and he said his friends' wives are asking to work Saturday mornings just for fun. Mertl said he has tentative plans to be open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the week.
Besides corned-beef pastrami sandwiches, the imagined menu would include pastrami dogs and Philly cheese-steak sandwiches. There would also be daily specials like lasagna and meatloaf. And of course breakfast would be served all day.
Mertl said storyboards about the diner and its history would hang on the walls. And he already has a jukebox ready to go — a "Chicago coin band box," with figures inside that dance when a curtain opens.
If the city gives the green light on the project, Mertl wants to document the diner's trip from Philadelphia and subsequent restoration in his Mountain View shop. He said KQED has already expressed interest in a show about it, as have some independent filmmakers.
"When it's done I think it will add a nice little dimension to this whole little area," Mertl said.
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