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The 9 Best Diner Chains in America

Where to go when you want comfort and nostalgia, served in a tasty and affordable package.
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There's something quintessentially nostalgic and Americana about a good old-fashioned diner. Havens of comfort food, these are restaurants distinguished by their all-day breakfast menus, pot pies, and French toast. Whether open all night or for the morning and midday hours, these restaurants feel reliable, familiar, and heartwarming—even when the servers are intentionally rude.

Steeped in American dining lore, diners are as essential to the national restaurant landscape as steakhouses and barbecue joints. Naturally, diners are among the most beloved restaurant chains in the country, standing the test of time with reliable waffles, omelets, and onion rings.

What sets the best diners apart from the fray? It all comes down to the perfect recipe of menu, atmosphere, and affordability. These are the nine best diner chains in America.

Waffle House

waffle house
Jonathan Weiss / Shutterstock

The rare diner chain where chefs and celebrities eat, Waffle House is among the most iconic chains in America, regardless of mealtime or genre. Naturally, the chain is particularly revered for its waffles and Southern food, with late-night hours and endless mugs of coffee. Since its inception in 1955, the diner has stood the test of time—and only grown more beloved—by adhering to its humble roots.

There are about 2,000 locations across the country, and yet there's something inherently homey about a Waffle House. It's where tried-and-true waffles are made in small batches from scratch using top-grade flour from Texas-based C.H. Guenther & Son, along with farm-fresh eggs and half and half.

 11 Breakfast Chains That Serve the Best Biscuits & Gravy

Black Bear Diner

Black Bear Diner exterior
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Even if you're in the middle of a major city, Black Bear Diner is the type of restaurant that'll make you feel like you're in a cozy, woodsy cabin out West. That's part of the innate charm of this California-based diner chain, which started in 1995 and has since expanded to 150-plus locations in 13 states. Although mainly in the western half of the country, the chain is in the midst of a major expansion this year, with CEO Anita Adams saying that the company aims to become a more national brand.

A lot of the love comes from Black Bear Diner's altruism—the brand regularly aligns with community charities and non-profit organizations—and its fun, folksy, bear-themed decor. The food, served in portions to feed a hungry bear, doesn't hurt either, like its best-selling chicken-fried steak, steak and eggs, sweet cream pancakes, and hickory-smoked ham.

Friendly's

friendlys
Shutterstock

Any restaurant founded with friendliness at the front and center is bound to be a good one. Indeed, few chains are as heartening as Friendly's, the Massachusetts-born diner that opened in 1935 as a sunny and smiley ice cream shop. Although ice cream creations have always been a through line, the brand steadily expanded to include vast menus of other diner-style comforts—many of which include smile-shaped dishes and garnishes.

It's been a rocky road of late for the chain, which filed for bankruptcy and saw its locations diminish by the hundreds, but the 120 or so that remain are as adored as ever. From blueberry-muffin-top pancakes and steak and cheese omelets to grilled cheese and mozzarella sticks, there's a lot to smile about here, including the fact that it's the breakfast chain with the best value. Whatever you do, don't forget the ice cream, which comes in all manner of banana splits, sundaes, and floats.

 10 Restaurant Chains With the Most Over-the-Top Desserts

Denny's

dennys sign
Jonathan Weiss / Shutterstock

Breakfast or not, Denny's reigns as one of the biggest—and most successful—restaurant chains in the U.S. Since launching in California in 1953, the company has grown to include more than 1,600 locations across the globe, becoming known for things like endless breakfast and Grand Slams along the way.

Revered as one of the 10 best dine-in chains in America for 2023, Denny's toes the line between old-fashioned and contemporary, offering a menu of familiar staples while investing $25 million into upgrading its kitchens. No matter how big or how many upgrades it undergoes, Denny's still feels modest thanks to its steadfast commitment to quality, affordable prices, and hearty portions.

IHOP

IHOP
QualityHD / Shutterstock

Another California-based mega-chain, IHOP, emerged near Los Angeles in 1958 as the International House of Pancakes. The familiar acronym IHOP appeared some 15 years later, and it's been a pancake love story ever since. Today, the company lives up to its "international" moniker with nearly 1,700 locations across the country and the world.

The brand, known for the smile in its logo, is all about people-pleasing, employing a philosophy that prioritizes comfort, relaxation, convenience, and being good to yourself. The ethos pays off because not only is IHOP a favorite chain among chefs, but its famed buttermilk pancakes, crêpes, and biscuits are the stuff of diner dreams.

 The 10 Best & Worst Orders at IHOP, According to Nutritionists

Perkins Restaurant & Bakery

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The late 1950s were a robust era for diner chains because another enduring brand to emerge at this time was Perkins Restaurant & Bakery. Born initially as Smithies Pancake House in Cincinnati in 1957, it went full franchise mode the following year, and it's remained a steady fixture ever since. With less than 300 locations in 32 states and two Canadian provinces, it's nowhere near the colossus of Denny's or IHOP, but that's part of what makes Perkins seem so familial and pure.

The menu runs the gamut of diner classics, but Perkins' niche skews sweet. Known for serving some of the best muffins of any chain restaurant, its star attraction is pie. So whatever you order, be it country-fried steak or blueberry buttermilk pancakes, be sure to finish on a sweet note with a slice of lemon meringue, banana cream, or homestyle apple pie.

Bob Evans

Bob evans
Eric Glenn / Shutterstock

Another Ohio-based diner icon, Bob Evans, has been gracing our plates since 1948 when its namesake founder began making his own sausage to serve at a tiny diner on his farm in Gallipolis. Demand steadily grew, evolving into full-fledged restaurants totaling nearly 500 locations in 18 states. Still, its earliest origins—as a place where strangers were treated like family—is what held steady and paved the way for generational success.

Like that sausage, the rest of Bob Evans' menu employs the same diligence, quality, and care, resulting in some of the fanciest bacon and best BLTs. Nowadays, in addition to menu stalwarts like biscuit sandwiches and brioche French toast, Bob Evans keeps things dynamic with seasonal menus and dishes like fish fry platters and steak tips and eggs.

 8 Restaurant Chains That Serve the Fanciest Bacon

First Watch

first watch storefront
Shutterstock

Downright youthful and spry compared to most of the mid-century chains on this list, First Watch has been on quite the expansion tear in recent years, ever since its California inception in 1983. With more than 500 locations in 29 states, First Watch has surpassed Texas Roadhouse to become America's most-loved chain. While decidedly more modern-looking than typical diners, the chain carries that cozy sentiment through its menu and motif while offering some of the highest-quality ingredients of any breakfast brand.

It's also got some of the most interesting, seasonally inspired creations on the market while seamlessly blending wholesomeness with comfort food. This includes barbacoa chilaquiles, blackberry lemon cream French toast, pesto chicken quinoa bowls, and ham and Gruyère melts.

Johnny Rockets

johnny rockets milkshakes
Johnny Rockets / X

When many folks envision Americana diners, they envision the slick, colorful, and quirky aesthetic at a place like Johnny Rockets. Founded in Los Angeles in 1986, this whimsical eatery is known mostly for the lunch-centric side of diner lore—particularly for its old-fashioned burgers, prized onion rings, and some of the best real-deal milkshakes in the game. It may not be the beacon of health or the pinnacle of high quality, but it doesn't purport to be. Johnny Rockets, which now has nearly 300 locations in more than 25 countries, built its brand on nostalgic comfort and curating atmospheres that feel timeless.

Matt Kirouac
Matt Kirouac is a travel and food writer and culinary school graduate, with a passion for national parks, all things Disney, and road trip restaurants. Read more about Matt