Reno Diner: An Original Diner on Cape Cod

Courtesy of Sam Sherman, Orleans Historian

Diners became a staple of American culture during the first half of the 20th century. The original ‘diner’ was created by Walter Scott in 1872, running out of Providence, Rhode Island. It was a horse-pulled wagon with walk-up service. The first patented diner, billed as a ‘Night-Lunch Wagon’ was given to Charles Palmer of Worcester, Massachusetts in 1893. In the time just before and after World War II diners were so popular that the streamlined train model diner was being mass produced and shipped to sites of prospective establishments across the Northeast and Midwest. It was around this time that Reno Diner would debut on Cape Cod to take its place among the diners of America.

Reno Diner was the brainchild of Joseph Davis. He and his wife were from the island of St. Pierre off the coast of Newfoundland. There Davis worked at the French Cable Station beginning in 1911. He, along with a few others, would be transferred to the French Cable Station located on Rt. 28 in Orleans in 1919. Davis would be transferred back to Newfoundland the following year before eventually making his way back to the Cape and making his home not far from the cable station.

When the station closed in 1940 because of the onset of World War II Joseph Davis knew he needed another outlet to support his growing family. He enlisted the help of a few friends and the next phase of his life was begun. An apple orchard was cleared out along Rt 6A in Orleans to make way for a diner. Davis along with his son Robert and Davis’ friends Rodney Sheperd and Ernie Fitzpatrick constructed the classic train-car shaped restaurant in 1942. Before it was to be opened it naturally needed a name.

There have been two conflicting stories of how Reno Diner got its name. The first is that when the neon sign was delivered which was to have spelled ‘Orleans Diner’ some of the letters for ‘Orleans’ were smashed and all that could be salvaged was R-E-N-O. The second story is that the Reno name came from a sign for the Norge Appliance Company, which was popular around that time. Sheperd and Fitzpatrick salvaged the R-E-N-O from that name. Either story is feasible.

Reno Diner would be staffed with locals including Davis’ son Robert and daughter Henriette. It would begin with tight hours of 6am-2pm serving breakfast and lunch yet nearly died a quick death. Only a year after opening, in 1943, Joseph Davis received an offer to work at the Press Wireless Office in New York City. This would hold him over until the French Cable Station in New York City reopened.

Reno Diner would lay dormant until after the war ended when Davis’ daughter Henriette along with her husband Gordon Harris would resurrect it. Again it would be staffed by locals who gave it a community feeling. Gordon would take Joseph Davis’ idea and take it to a new level with his culinary expertise and drive to make Reno Diner a must for locals and visitors alike.

Courtesy of Sam Sherman, Orleans Historian

Gordon would come up with daily specials to go along with the classic diner fare. The counter and neighboring booths would be routinely filled with happy customers. This led to the diner’s hours being extended to all-day. In addition to the locals and visitors making Reno Diner a happening spot it was also populated frequently by the military. The convoys would stop for meals at the diner on their way to and from nearby Camp Wellfleet with its Army base and firing range. The camp occupied more than 1,700 acres of land among the Wellfleet dunes from 1942-1961 before being declared excess and gifted to the Cape Cod National Seashore by President Kennedy.

In the 1950’s Reno Diner became a hangout for the local teenagers. They would stop by the diner after sporting events or movies to grab a hamburger, a shake, and maybe some blueberry pie and ice cream. There would be music echoing from the jukebox and kids gathered around the pinball machine. It was the magnificence of the 1950’s inside the small diner. In addition to Cape Codders making Reno Diner their go to place it also was enjoyed by celebrities like Ricardo Montalban.

The diner would continue to thrive throughout the 1950’s. In 1960 Ross Demetras of Falmouth, who had owned the Column Terrace Hotel, would purchase the diner and neighboring cottage. They would be leveled and replaced by the Orleans Holiday Motel which would be run by Demetras’ wife Maria. A pancake restaurant would be built next door and run by Ross. Eventually the Orleans Holiday Motel would become a Rodeway Inn which is what stands at the location of the former Reno Diner.

The classic diner might be a rarity these days, though it is beginning to make a comeback on Cape Cod. However the legend of the Reno Diner, its story, and the people who made it special, still remain strong to this day.

By Christopher Setterlund


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