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The 30 Best Diner Scenes in Crime Movies, Ranked

What’s on the menu? Only some of the best sequences in cinema. And pancakes.

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two men eating at a diner

There’s no place like a diner, nowhere at all like a diner. A separate piece, a more focused essay, would simply muse on the ontology of “the diner,” trace the history of the diner, evaluate the American-ness of the diner. This piece is not that, but I would like to write it anyway, because diners are my favorite things, but besides that, they also have a particular, elusive mystique. What is it about the diner that is so appealing, so satisfying? Is it the cheapness, the accessibility of the diner? The local-ness, the nostalgia? That so many of the diners we encounter today are actually relics of earlier times and different aesthetics: roadhouses along interstates, breakfast places in small towns, spots of peace in busy cities, bastions of activity late at night when all other places are closed?

Have diners have played such a large part in the American imagination in part because of their indelible place in cinema, especially the cinema of past eras? But still, what’s the appeal? Is it something so specific as the mile-long menu or the promise of comfort food, of the safety of breakfast served every hour of the day? I don’t know, but I wish I were in a diner at this moment. I’d go to the Soho Diner, which is a little more upscale than the diners I’m reminiscing about here and isn’t even actually a diner probably, but I don’t care because they serve deep fried cheese curds with hot honey, twenty-four hours a day (also, I only realized this after I made this list, but their website also showcases some stills from cinema’s great diner scenes, which is awesome). Or maybe I’d go to EJ’s Luncheonette on the East Side, where I can get an egg white omelette so full of vegetables on a platter toppling with cubed, fried potatoes and peppers that it’s a wonder I can eat it all every time and still have room for two pieces of toast scraped with butter.

Anyway, diners are important. They are important to me, they are important to my editor who is allowing me to write this piece, and they are important to movies. How does the diner function in film? Generally? Well, most often, they are sites of crucial conversations: hushed threats, whispered revelations, casual flirtations. They can be sites of cheap crimes, hideouts from dangerous characters. They are, by nature, places so normal and down-home that nothing exciting ever seems to happen there, except when it does.

We’ve ranked the thirty most memorable, most moving diner scenes in crime films. What are the rules? Well, first of all, all these films have to be crime movies. Sadly, there’s no Diner or When Harry Met Sally or Five Easy Pieces or Back to the Future, on here. Second of all, they have to be the absolute cream of the crop in the “crime/mystery” category. This list is not as long or exhaustive as it could be—it could be a plastic diner menu of listings, with pages never-endingly-unfolding. But it’s not. It’s selective. Think of it as the one page insert of Daily Specials in the middle of the menu that is also kind of long for a curated list, but it’s definitely shorter than the regular menu.

Anyway, here they are. Order’s up.

30. Sudden Impact (1983)

When Dirty Harry stops at a diner to get coffee, you know there’s about to be a shootout there (even though he says he’s been doing this exact same thing every day for ten years and I guess no one tried to hold up the joint then). The scene is really great, but it does feel a bit specific that all the bandits robbing the joint are Black men. Just saying. So it’s going down here, at #30.

29. Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers is a lot… it’s a lot, but it does have a very memorable scene set in a diner. It’s wobbly and swirly and changes perspective, color, and angle a LOT. But you won’t forget it once you’ve seen it.

28. Blue Velvet (1986)

The best part of this scene is Laura Dern, in her soft sweater and with her half-drunk coke, rebuffing Kyle McLaughlin’s plan to investigate a potential (and bonkers) murder in their small town.

27. Fallen Angel (1945)

I consider myself a Dana Andrews fan besides enjoying dark 1940s movies about drifters and femme fatales, so I enjoyed watching Fallen Angel, a very mysterious noir about a down-on-his-luck traveler who winds up at a California diner and falls in love with Stella, the trouble-making waitress there. And this brings a whole world of trouble. This is the maiden scene, in which Stella finally shows up, after missing three days of work. I love how she just plows into that hamburger, which doesn’t even belong to her.

26. Zodiac (2007)

There are three scenes at the fictional Callahan’s Diner in Zodiac, but the best one is when Jake Gyllenhaal brings Mark Ruffalo to lunch to tell him he thinks he’s figured out that the Zodiac Killer is a man named Arthur Leigh Allen. I like how he uses the salt and pepper shakers as models in his demonstration. He doesn’t need to (the point he’s making is simple), but I appreciate the effort. Really making use of that “diner” environment.

25. The Old Man and the Gun (2018)

There are several very good diner scenes in the lovely, wistful film The Old Man and the Gun, but this scene, in which genteel bank robber Robert Redford and non-bank-robber Sissy Spacek go on a daring first date (in which Robert Redford fully CONFESSES to Sissy Spacek that he’s a bank robber), at a local diner will stay with you for a while after seeing it.

24. Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce is all about restaurants, and its eateries toe the line between “diner/roadhouse” and “nice California restaurant.” But the first place she works as a waitress is definitely a diner, so that scene is going here. It’s not the best scene in the movie, but we must honor the masterpiece that is Mildred Pierce!

23. Looper (2012)

In this pivital scene in Looper, Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play the same person, Joe, but from different points in time; young Joe winds up having to assassinate his older self. And in this scene, they face off in a diner and talk (and don’t talk) about time travel.

22. Detour (1945)

Detour‘s first scene, which is inside a Nevada diner, is stone-cold 40s melancholy. And then yelling. Lots of yelling.

21. Taxi Driver (1976)

In this scene from Taxi Driver (which has two scenes on this list), in which (pre-mohawk) Travis Bickle joins a bunch of crass cab driver acquaintances at a New York diner at night, but doesn’t pay attention much to what they say. He’s distracted, on his way to becoming disaffected. That’s Peter Boyle, by the way, yammering on about the woman in his cab.

20. The Petrified Forest (1936)

Have you seen The Petrified Forest? It’s so good. Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart. The whole thing takes place LARGELY inside an Arizona roadside diner (the trailer calls it a “tavern” but whatever), but the best scene, hands-down, is when Bogart takes the entire cast hostage inside the diner. (The film is based on a play… can’t you tell?)

19. The Sting (1973)

There are a few scenes at the unimpressive Depression-era diner in The Sting, but the most important (and the most ambient) is the one where just as Robert Redford plans to leave, he encounters an assassin who’s out to get him, and has to craftily hide in the diner, with the help of the taciturn waitress (pictured).

18. No Country for Old Men (2007)

If No Country for Old Men isn’t about the daily futility of trying to escape fate and other mysterious powers, I don’t know what is. In this scene, grizzled ranger Tommy Lee Jones is reading the newspaper at a diner table, across from his earnest deputy. He’s reading aloud a recent atrocity; a remarkable feat of evil that has transpired, when the deputy suddenly laughs. “It’s all right, I laugh myself, sometimes. Ain’t a whole lot else you can do,” he says.

17. True Romance (1993)

True Romance is a lot of things, but it’s also home to a very genuine first date diner-scene, as homey and all-American-y as pie. Underscored by the fact that the two young lovers (Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette) do actually share pie.

16. Taxi Driver (1976)

Travis Bickle’s date with Betsey seems pretty innocuous—a bit awkward, but well-intentioned and sweet—but it slowly teases out Travis’s issues with entitlement and obsessions with “virtue” that will give way towards his eventual violent explosion.

15. Goodfellas (1990)

The diner scene in Goodfellas begins, like most of the scenes in Goodfellas, throat-deep in Henry Hill’s perspective: there’s a very neat subjective tracking shot overlayed with Ray Liotta’s forceful, gutteral first-person narration. It’s nice the way the scene melts back from Henry’s tense ruminations on his assignment from Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) into a quotidian diner moment, with the waitress walking over and taking their order: two different kinds of normal, industrial tasks, simultaneously going on.

14. The Killers (1946)

In this scene from The Killers, two hitmen walk into a diner with intention to kill a patron (Burt Lancaster) who usually walks in every night at 6 pm. A cinematographer’s dream. Also, these two hired guns are very condescending, my god. Haven’t you boys ever heard of “service with a smile?”

13. A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence has possibly the most jarring diner scene on this entire ranking. Viggo Mortensen is a soft-spoken diner proprietor who winds up defending the place and its gentle inhabitants from two menacing men who arrive with mysterious intentions but guns drawn.

12. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

So, a lot of The Postman Always Rings Twice takes place at a roadside diner. But the best scene from that film is probably the one where John Garfield sees Lana Turner for the first time. I’m not including a scene from the Jack Nicholson-Jessica Lange remake on this list because it’s, ahem… less good.

11. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs takes place in a diner in the morning, just before the breakfasters are about to go commit a heist. But we don’t know that yet. We’re here simply to meet our crew, learn their thoughts on Madonna, and discover that Mr. Pink is a very, very poor tipper.

10. Mulholland Dr. (2001)

This scene, from the reality-bending Mulholland Dr., drops in on two men who are sitting in Winkie’s Diner, on Sunset Blvd. They’ve come there so one man can tell the other about a nightmare he had that took place there, and investigate whether or not the dream has any basis. It is so creepy and terrifying, and its made all the more impressive because its mounting tension is constructed around something purely imaginary. (Or is it?)

9. In the Heat of the Night (1967)

The diner scene from In the Heat of the Night has the best use of diegetic sound I’ve ever encountered in a film. Insane how a place so local and normal can become so sinister. I’ve never been so creeped out by a jukebox selection in my life. Plus, as in ALL the scenes from this film, Sidney Poitier kills it.

8. Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water has two completely fantastic, totally different diner scenes, and in this first, Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges stops by to question a waitress who served two suspects in a series of bank robberies. Also, Katy Mixon is a powerhouse.

7. Grosse Point Blank (1997)

In this famous breakfast scene (in two parts) from the quintessential 90s comedy Grosse Point Blank, John Cusack and Dan Ackroyd play warring hitmen who wind up drawing on one another over poached eggs, whole wheat pancakes, and an egg white omelet with nothing inside it (is that even an omelet then? It’s debatable!). Everything about this movie is incredible, especially Dan Ackroyd, whose character is fully insane.

6. Hell or High Water (2016)

In this other fantastic diner scene from Hell or High Water, when Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham stop by a local watering hole to see if the bank across the street will be robbed, they encounter a tough waitress, played by the great character actress Margaret Bowman. If you watch NO OTHER SCENE on this list, watch this one. You’ll be speechless.

5. Road to Perdition (2002)

This scene is the first one that I thought of when I brainstormed this list; Road to Perdition is a perfect, pensive crime film, and in this scene, which takes place at a Midwestern roadside diner, the tone flirts with noir. Tom Hanks plays a former Irish-mob enforcer who winds up going on the lam to protect his young son (a preteen Tyler Hoechlin), after the gang turns on his family. And in this scene, when Tom Hanks pulls over to grab dinner one evening, he encounters the creepy hit man (Jude Law) who has been tracking them down. What follows is one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever seen; Jude Law’s character is practically an insect (look at how much sugar he puts in his coffee, and the lizard-like way he curls over in his seat), but Tom Hanks is the one who’s cornered. (I love how he says “machine parts.”)

4. The Big Lebowski (1998)

The diner scene in The Big Lebowski is one of the most exemplary examples of character-driven scenes ever filmed. It’s also one of the funniest scenes, bar none. How John Goodman was not nominated for his role is BEYOND me.

3. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction also has TWO fantastic diner sequences, and they both expound on very distinct facets of “the diner.” In this scene, Uma Thurman and John Travolta go to a vintage extravaganza of a diner called Jack Rabbit Slims that John Travolta calls “a wax museum with a pulse.” They get a Douglas Sirk steak, a Durward Kirby burger, and a $5 vanilla shake (or, as the server calls it “Martin and Lewis”), talk, and dance.

2. Heat (1995)

The diner scene in Heat is the culmination of lots of chasing and cat-and-mouse-ing. Detective Al Pacino finally catches thief Robert De Niro (who’s on this list a lot, wow) and then they go to a diner to talk things out. And it’s amazing.

1. Pulp Fiction (1994)

This diner sequence is actually two scenes, split between the first and last scenes of the movie. Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are a couple who plan to rob the joint. Little do they know, Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta are a few booths over. And Samuel L. Jackson has a psalm quote at the ready for just such an occasion. “Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will/ shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness,” motherf**kers. Feel free to leave a tip on the table before you go.

Olivia Rutigliano is the Associate CrimeReads editor at Lit Hub. In addition to Lit Hub and CrimeReads, her work appears in Vanity Fair, Lapham's Quarterly, Public Books, The Baffler, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Politics/Letters, The Toast, Truly Adventurous, PBS Television, and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate and the Marion E. Ponsford fellow in the departments of English/comparative literature and theatre at Columbia University, where she specializes in nineteenth and early twentieth-century literature and entertainment.

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published July 15, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.