5 Retro American Diners Worth Leaving London For

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 12 months ago

Last Updated 04 July 2023

5 Retro American Diners Worth Leaving London For
The interior, with black and white floors, red, white, blue and pink leather booths, and car memorabilia on the wall
Photo: Hot Rod Diner

Eating healthily is all well and good, but sometimes you just want to go all in. Burgers and hot dogs, accompanied by loaded fries and onion rings — washed down with a thick, creamy shake. And is it just us, or does that taste all the better accompanied by a heady dose of retro Americana?

Yep, we're talking classic American diners with vintage Pepsi ads on the walls, a working jukebox, and, more often than not, a life-size fibreglass Elvis strutting its stuff in the corner. The restaurants below all commit to the All-American theme — and dish up above average food, too. You may need to loosen your belt after reading this...

Hot Rod Diner, Northfleet, Kent

An interior brick effect wall, with the side of a red classic American car mounted on it, surrounded by other vintage signs and adverts
This joint wouldn't look out of place in Grease. Photo: Hot Rod Diner

Describing itself as an "authentic 1950s rock 'n' roll diner", Hot Rod wouldn't look out of place in Grease. It's certainly one for the petrolheads, what with its undercover parking often home to some serious sets of wheels. Head below the neon sign and step inside for more motoring memorabilia; Route 66 signage, vintage Shell petrol pumps, and the exterior of a Cadillac mounted on the wall. Chequerboard floors, vintage adverts and pleather booth seating complete the diner experience.

The menu is standard diner fare done well, but be warned: the hot dogs are loooong, the sides loaded, and the burgers, towering. The milkshakes come highly recommended too (hello, Nutella cheesecake). As for its claim to be "the best diner outside of the States"? Yhat's for you to decide.

Hot Rod Diner, 79-84 High Street, Northfleet, Kent, DA11 9HJ.

Getting there: Northfleet station is a five-minute walk away, with trains to London Bridge taking under an hour.

Bobby Jo's Diner, Southend, Essex

Three pink-brown coloured milkshakes in tall glasses, on a worktop. Each one has a streak of chocolate sauce and is topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
Photo: Bobby Jo's Diner

With pink walls, blue leatherette seating and black and white chequerboard flooring, Bobby Jo's was designed with looks in mind. It's a small venue, and sits right on the seafront, so gets busy very fast — and rightly so, considering the quality of food.

The dishes are a gut-busting romp through burgers, loaded fries, hot dogs, chicken and mac 'n' cheese. Though the menu isn't as long as some on this list, it's all done well — and if you can't choose between the burgers, they'll let you try three different mini ones on a slider selection tray.

A diagonal shot of three mini slider burgers in a row on a tray, served on greaseproof paper with the Bobby Jo's logo
Can't decided which burger to have? Eat three at once. Photo: Bobby Jo's Diner

There's a whole separate, three-tiered milkshake menu, split into 'tasty', 'premium' or 'boozy', with classics such as Nutella and Kinder Bueno featuring. The breakfast menu caters for most tastes too, via classic fry-ups, sweet pancakes and waffles and eggs benedict.

Bobby Jo's also hosts food competitions, including the Big Breakfast Challenge, which involves scoffing the equivalent of eight full Englishes in 45 minutes. Ooof.

Bobby Jo's Diner, 11-12 Eastern Esplanade, Southend, Essex, SS1 2ER.

Getting there: Bobby Jo's Diner is a 15-minute walk to Southend Central, which has trains into Fenchurch Street taking about an hour, or a 25-minute walk to Southend Victoria, which has trains into Liverpool Street, also taking about an hour.

Mollie's Diner, Oxfordshire

In darkness, a red neon illuminated sign saying 'Mollie's Motel & Diner'. The red light is reflected in the wet road surface, and the silhouette of a motorcyclist can be seen riding past
The sophisticated older sibling to the other diners on this list. Photo: Mollie's Motel & Diner

How to describe Mollie's? The sophisticated older sibling to the other diners on this list; playful, but selectively so. Sure, it's got its name up in lights outside, blue leatherette Cadillac booths, and bar stools at the counter. But there's also soft-toned lighting, wood-panelled walls, and not a jukebox or vintage poster in sight.

The menu too, is less in-your-face than other eateries of the genre. You'll still get your burgers, hot dogs, fries, and mac 'n' cheese here, but it's tempered with salads, salmon and all-day eggs dishes. Milkshakes are available, and there's an extensive alcohol list, featuring classic cocktails, beer, wine and spirits. Don't hold back — there's a motel next door where you can sleep it off (rooms designed by the Soho House team, natch), which gives you a chance to sample the breakfast menu too.

Diner interior; black and white patterned floor tiles, dark blue leather booths, orb lights hanging from the ceiling and an open kitchen which can be seen from the restaurant
There's a motel next door, where you can sleep off the Oreo waffles. Photo: Mollie's Motel & Diner

If you've got a sweet tooth, you'll want to visit on Waffle Wednesdays — think Oreos, blueberries and other toppings on warm, fluffy waffles.

Mollie's Motel & Diner, Shrivenham Road, Buckland, SN7, 8PY. There's a second venue at Cribb's Causeway, Bristol, and a third due to open in Manchester in 2023.

Getting there: This is one for the drivers — the nearest railway stations are a few miles away. It's approximately 1 hour 15 minutes drive from J16 of the M25.

JB's American Diner, Brighton

Photo: Laura Reynolds/Londonist

JB's appeared in our guide to spending a weekend in Brighton, and because we love the place so darn much, we're telling you about it again now.

Don't be put off by the seafront exterior — it looks a bit... naff (and we say that with love), but the interior is an all-singing, all-dancing Americana experience, drawing your eyes left, right and up to the ceiling. Route 66, Jack Daniel's, Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew and Harley Davidson are some of the brands featured in the visual riot, along with a life-size Elvis model (standard), a scaled down Statue of Liberty, and a motorbike parked up against a desert backdrop — and that's all just at the entrance.

Further in, red and white leather booths and formica tables sit on a chequerboard floor, with film reel style black and white photos featuring the likes of Marilyn Monroe on the ceiling, and Tom & Jerry cartoons on loop on the TV.  

A pale coloured milkshake, topped with whipped cream, sprinkles and a cherry, in a tall glass. There's a chocolate milkshake on the other side of the table.
The Lucky Charms milkshake. Photo: Londonist

The menu is a masterclass in gluttony, careering through nachos, burgers and hot dogs and more than 25 side options (our tip: share one side portion of fries between two, particularly if you're having a milkshake).  Rumour has it there's a dessert menu, but as we've never finished our main course here feeling anything less than stuffed, we've never had reason to try it. The milkshakes though? Definitely worth leaving room for — they're thick, blended with real ice cream, and flavours include apple pie, Kinder Bueno, and our standing order, Lucky Charms (which even makes a cheeky appearance in a Londonist contributor profile photo).

Thankfully, Brighton beach is a short stagger away, so you can curl up on the pebbles until the overwhelming feeling of being extremely full has passed.  

JB's American Diner, 31 King's Road, Brighton, BN1 1NR.

Getting there: JB's American Diner is a 15-minute walk to Brighton station, from where you can catch a train to London in about an hour.

Max's Diner aka The Chapel Diner, Horsham, Sussex

A small building, not much bigger than a shed, with white weatherboarding and a blue sign above the door saying 'Max's Diner'. A baby blue classic American convertible car is parked right outside the door.
You don't have to drive one of these to dine at Max's - but you do need a booking. Photo: Max's Diner

You could drive up and down Langhurst Wood Road — just outside Crawley — your whole life, and never know that Max's Diner is there. It's set back from the main road on the Graylands Estate, a peaceful area of residential and commercial properties, and... a chapel.

It's that chapel, diminutive in size and clad in white weatherboarding, with a weather vane on top and an American flag flying on one side, that we're interested in. It's home to Max's Diner — also known as The Chapel Diner — a restaurant specialising in American food and serving breakfast and lunch.

Goin' to the chapel and we're gonna get waffles... Photo: Max's Diner

First things first; because of the size of the place — a mere handful of tables inside and half a dozen picnic benches in a garden round the side — it's a bookings-only restaurant, so you can't show up on a whim. But it's worth it. Inside, a working traffic light hangs where the altar must once have been, with vintage gasoline pumps and a jukebox taking up a considerable percentage of the floor place. Seating takes the form of red and white leather booths, though it's fairly packed, so not somewhere for a private conversation.

It beggars belief that they've managed to squeeze a kitchen back there too, but they're sending out plates full of burgers, ribs, chicken and hot dogs from somewhere. If you're around a bit earlier, breakfast options range from a full English to pancakes and waffles, and there's a whole separate veggie and vegan menu. They make their milkshakes with real ice cream, and pile them high with whipped cream.

Max's Diner, The Chapel, Graylands Estate, Langhurst Wood Road, Horsham, RH12 4QD.

Getting there: Nearest station is Warnham — it's a 20-minute walk away, though it's down a busy country road so the best option is to drive. It's about 40 minutes from J9 of the M25.