There's just something about a good old-fashioned diner. You know the one. You’ve sat in one of those booths with the shiny, padded upholstery that squeaks as you slide into your seat. And you’ve ordered off of a menu (always slightly greasy from the patron before) with a seemingly never-ending list of options: a cheeseburger, waffles, pancakes, an omelet, meatloaf, steak, and eggs. Let’s not forget the piping hot cup of Joe and a piece of homemade pie, the ones hidden behind a glass case you were eyeing as you walked in. Diners are comforting and nostalgic—a place to go on an early morning or to wind down after a long day and sometimes, even a place to go for a sense of community.
What is it about the diner setting that is so appealing—and used so often—in crime movies? At first glance, it may not seem that a cozy local diner hangout is a piping hotspot of crime.
But maybe this contrast between the familiar and unfamiliar is a key part of the diner setting’s appeal. People always know what to expect when they visit a diner. They know more or less what will be on the menu, how waitstaff will greet them, and they can even probably guess that oldies-but-goodies will be playing softly in the background.
Compare that to the unpredictability of the crime film genre—where acts of violence, unknown suspects, and sketchy characters roam the streets and can commit heinous atrocities at any time of the day. It's a jarring juxtaposition.
When crime movies use the diner, usually open 24 hours (allowing a whole multitude of people, and not all with morally sound judgment, to act as its patrons), as a backdrop for brutality or whispered schemes, it’s highly unsettling for the audience since it implies corruption can infiltrate a small, unassuming diner. There is truly nowhere that can be 100% safe. And that feeling of unease is what the crime genre thrives upon and what keeps viewers coming back for another helping—time and time again.
For your viewing pleasure, here are 10 of of the most unforgettable diner scenes in crime movies—sure to appease your appetite.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Set in New York, Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, takes a job working as a taxi driver at night and comes across many sketchy people in the crime-ridden streets. During this time, he becomes interested in a campaign volunteer whose name is Betsy. After deciding to ask her out, Travis decides to chat with her over coffee at a local diner.
It’s on this date that Travis impresses Betsy with his perceptive observations on her life, but if viewers pay close attention, they might realize that Travis is starting to show signs of possessiveness and reveal his tendency to believe he has a higher moral ground than others. It foreshadows his potential for his fervent beliefs to lead to violent acts in the name of righteousness.
The scene has brief moments of comfort as the two share a meal by a window overlooking a bustling street, while also exhibiting a dark tension bubbling beneath the surface—perhaps cracks in this complex character’s seemingly calm demeanor.
This film was adapted from the nonfiction book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, which uncovers the true story of mobster Henry Hill and the violence and corruption that permeate the lifestyle of a criminal. Considered to be one of the greatest gangster films ever made, it stars Ray Liotta as Henry Hill and Robert De Niro as Irish-American gangster Jimmy “the Gent” Conway, whose power charms Henry Hill as a young boy and inspires him to work his way up the gangster social hierarchy.
Conway and Hill discuss Hill’s next assignment, which will necessitate that Hill travel to Florida to kill a rat, but Hill knows Conway a little too well, having spent lots of time around the heartless thug. He knows that this mission is actually a way to get Hill “taken care of” so he doesn’t become an informant. As Hill explains, “Murderers come with smiles. They come as your friends, the people who have cared for you all of your life.”
As the viewer hears the background noise filled with the typical hustle and bustle of diner conversation and clanging cutlery, a feeling of uneasiness creeps in as they realize alongside Hill that his usefulness has diminished and he’s about to be taken out like garbage after a long day at a diner.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s beloved crime film Pulp Fiction is regarded as a classic for a reason. With its witty dialogue, superb acting and clever use of a non-linear structure, Tarantino masterfully intertwines four tales of crime and violence in Los Angeles. This film also has two brilliantly executed diner scenes split between the beginning of the film. These scenes allow a slow release of information to keep viewers engaged and as active participants trying to piece together the events that unfold.
A Bonnie-and-Clyde-type burglar couple decides the diner they’re eating at will be the perfect place to rob; unfortunately for them, they aren’t aware that Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) have decided to eat at the same hole-in-the-wall that day and aren’t planning on taking such blatant disrespect.
If you don’t want to check out this movie for anything else, it deserves to be watched for one of the most bad-ass dialogue scenes, I dare say in film history, when Jules Winnfield, in an even-keel tone while holding a gun inches from one of the robbers’ face says, “The truth is, you’re the weak. And I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the Shepherd.”
Goosebumps every single time.
Casino centers around Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a gambling expert asked by the Chicago Mafia to run the Tangiers Casino, in which the audience gets to see the challenges the job entails and the Mafia’s influence over the casino amid the changing Las Vegas landscape throughout the years. During his time managing the casino, Rothstein meets Ginger McKenna, a charming hustler who steals his heart. They marry but end up having a far-from-perfect marriage.
This diner scene showcases Robert De Niro’s excellent acting performance. He has the perfect mix of charisma and intimidation that rightly leaves those who cross him, terrified. When Rothstein walks in on Ginger and her old boyfriend Lester Diamond sitting in a diner, while Diamond is about to accept a large wad of cash from her, Rothstein isn’t pleased.
The diner plays the song “The Glory of Love,” ironically supplementing the lover’s spat beautifully and setting a disconcerting backdrop for the threats being spewed at the soon-to-be clobbered conman.
A thrilling ride from beginning to end, with one of the best plot twists of the crime genre, Se7en is about William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a detective who’s near retirement, and a young, green investigator named David Mills (Brad Pitt) tasked with investigating horrific murders relating to the seven deadly sins.
In this diner clip, it’s actually David Mill’s wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) who invites William Somerset for breakfast to vent about her secret pregnancy due to her doubts about bringing a child into the crime-filled world that her husband has direct contact with, which has already affected their married life and is bound to do more damage to their family life.
Both actors carry out an amazingly realistic performance, but Paltrow’s small acting details, like the way she cradles her cup of coffee as she tries to build up the courage to talk about what she really wants to get off her chest, add so much to the scene’s authenticity.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
This crime comedy has a hilarious diner scene that had to make it on this list. The film follows Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, who is assaulted by two enforcers who mistakenly targeted the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski, whose wife owes a dangerous, powerful man money. His wife, Bunny, is then kidnapped. The “Big Lebowski” (the wealthy one with the now-missing wife) hires the other Lebowski to deliver ransom money to the kidnappers to save her.
Misadventure ensues when Lebowski asks his bowling buddies for help since Walter Sobchak decides that rather than move forward with the plan, they should keep the cash instead. This is perhaps the movie that uses the diner setting to its advantage the most since Walter Sobchak ends up irritating his fellow patrons who give him judgmental stares and a waitress who threatens to kick him out after he disturbs the tranquility of the restaurant.
Shout out to the extra sitting behind Walter when he announces obnoxiously loudly that he’s not leaving and will finish his cup of coffee. It’s an expression of utter irritation and unexpected sassiness that will not soon be forgotten.
The Punisher (2004)
This crime action film based on Marvel Comics follows Frank Castle, who is being hunted by assassins employed by the crime boss Howard Saint after Saint’s son is killed when the FBI busts their smuggling operation. Castle is revealed to be an undercover FBI agent, rather than an arms dealer like Saint had previously thought, and subsequently gains a huge target on his back from the dangerous criminal now bent on vengeance for his son’s death.
After an attempt on Castle’s life manages to kill all of his family members but leaves him still kicking, Saint orders assassin Harry Heck to finish the job. But instead of stealthily killing off Castle when he’s least expecting it, Harry Heck chooses to be incredibly direct: he enters a diner where Castle is eating, sits down, pulls out his guitar, and starts singing a song composed specially for his target about his eventual demise, all while never breaking eye contact.
It’s both a chilling scene and a surprisingly great song that make this a noteworthy diner movie moment.
A History of Violence (2005)
An adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name, A History of Violence is about one man’s inability to keep his past crime-filled life from affecting his present after trying to start a new life with a different name and a more respectable job. Tom Stall, once known as Joey Cusack, is a diner owner in the small town of Millbrook, Indiana.
Unluckily for him, two killers, eager to create chaos and violence for unsuspecting diner patrons and staff, confidently stride into his establishment one night around closing time. Unluckily for the two sadistic men, they don’t know Stall happens to have a very dark past and isn’t the meek man they initially assume him to be.
Let’s just say the diner’s cleaning crew will need to invest in a new glass door and a new mop.
Zodiac, a neo-noir crime thriller, is about the true unsolved case of the late 1960s serial murderer nicknamed the Zodiac Killer, who killed around 37 victims in the San Francisco Bay Area and was never caught. The Zodiac Killer taunted police and mailed clues and evidence that they forced newspapers to publish, threatening to go on killing sprees and perform bombings if they were not acknowledged.
Robert Graysmith sits inspector Dave Toschi down to explain why he believes Arthur Leigh Allen is the culprit in a dimly lit, mainly empty diner. It ends up being the perfect ambiance for their solemn chat. Graysmith uses the diner’s props for his demonstration by using salt and pepper shakers to illustrate how close Arthur Leigh Allen lived to one of the victim’s places of employment.
The intensity of both actors’ performances makes this diner scene extremely memorable.
Hell or High Water (2016)
This contemporary Western crime drama follows two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard, who resort to bank robbing and money laundering to keep their family ranch from being foreclosed on, while they are followed by two Texas Rangers assigned to take the criminals down. A seemingly ordinary meal between two brothers commences in an average diner, but if fellow customers were listening closely, they would have overheard a conversation about the potential plan to rob another bank.
After hearing his little brother’s woes about missing child support payments, older brother Tanner decides to “use the restroom” while a waitress flirts up a storm with Toby. Upon exiting the establishment, Toby is startled by Tanner, who has failed to notify him that “restroom” is code word for bank robbing.
Now this little brother must do what younger siblings do best: drive a getaway vehicle so the two don’t get sent to jail.