Decoding Diner Lingo

I’ll have a shingle with a shimmy and a shake in the alley

By Kate Ramos

A special language bonds any restaurant staff, but classic American diners are known for their very own jargon. While most kitchen lingo was developed to keep orders as brief as possible, diner phrases arose to provide levity: The playful banter between the waitstaff and the kitchen could lighten the burden of a sometimes difficult and frustrating job. Although they are rarely used today, some of these terms have made their way into common American English, like the BLT. Others, like a shingle with a shimmy and a shake in the alley, a.k.a. buttered toast with jelly on the side, are slightly obscure yet totally memorable. Here are some more of our favorites.

1. Whiskey Down = rye toast. In a noisy diner, a waitress can be hard to hear. White bread and rye bread can easily be mistaken for one another. So rye became whiskey and down became toast, as you have to push the knob on the toaster down.

2. Wax = American cheese. Pretty self-explanatory.

3. Red Bull = chili. Long before the popular drink of the same name was in fashion, Richard Connelly at the Goody Goody Diner in St. Louis, Missouri, was tossing this term about to refer to the restaurant’s famous chili. If it was on top of french fries, the order was Crispies with Red Bull.

4. First Lady = spareribs. Who was the first lady? Eve. Where did she come from? Adam’s spare rib. Biblical Eve plays an important role in diner slang. Together, the first couple also make an appearance as poached eggs on toast: Adam and Eve on a Raft. Eve appears solo as another name for apple pie: Eve with a Lid On.

5. Radio = tuna salad on toast. What began as tuna down got confused amid the noise and chaos with turn it down. A step further and you ended up with radio.

6. Drag One Through Georgia = Coca-Cola with chocolate syrup. Coca-Cola’s headquarters are in Atlanta, Georgia. Dragging something gets it muddy; i.e., darker; i.e., chocolaty.

7. Whistleberries = baked beans. Named for the supposed flatulence they cause.

8. Eighty-Sixed = an item the kitchen has run out of. A popular piece of diner lingo that, according to Jonelle Roest, co-owner of Rosie’s Diner, is still in use in many restaurants. There are three theories about the origin of the phrase. The first is a reference to Article 86 of the New York state liquor code, which defines the circumstances in which a bar patron should be refused alcohol. There’s also the soup-kitchen theory, which refers to the fact that during the Great Depression, soup kitchens would often make just enough soup for 85 people; therefore, if you were number 86 in line, you got eighty-sixed. The third theory is dubbed the coffin theory: A coffin is eight feet long and buried six feet under the ground, so if you’re in your coffin, you’ve been eight by sixed, or eighty-sixed.

9. Looseners = prunes. A reference to the medicinal effects of the dried fruit.

10. In the Weeds = when a worker is overloaded. Jane Sherman has been a waitress at the Tastee Diner in Laurel, Maryland, since 1978, and this is the only term she ever remembers using. “We say that all the time when we can’t keep up with our tables,” she explains. The term refers to the military roots of many diner chefs: When a regiment was in the weeds, it meant the soldiers were in danger of being slaughtered.

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