A couple of generations ago, shiny stainless steel eateries shaped like railroad cars were a common sight along our nation’s highways. Travelers and locals alike could expect a square meal that was economical as well as tasty. Here in Indiana, Plainfield was host to a gleaming silver diner that sat on U.S. Route 40 as it ran from east to west through the state. The Oasis Diner was a place where memories were made as people stopped in to get a bite to eat while enjoying family and friends.
Times and attitudes changed, however. In 2008 the diner shut down and it seemed as if its days as a gathering place were over. Happily, the kindred spirits of Plainfield officials worked diligently to prevent that from happening, and together with Indiana Landmarks— America’s largest private statewide historic preservation organization—secured both a new location and new owners so that old recollections could come alive again.
One Plainfield native with special ties to the diner is local realtor John Dininger. As a young boy during the 1980s, he loved going to the restaurant with the giant coffee cup on its rooftop sign. An added bonus was getting to visit with his Great Uncle “Bus,” Walter Dininger, who was the diner’s owner. His uncle lived in a little house right behind the building, and he also owned the town’s American Motor Company and Dodge dealership. The two shared a love of cars and enjoyed lively conversations while spending time together at the diner. Those talks made such an impression on John Dininger that today he is the proud owner of a 1970 AMC Javelin.
“It’s the type of car my uncle would have sold and years ago my dad actually had one just like it.”
Recalling that his uncle was more involved in the business side of running the diner than in its culinary aspects, John Dininger said, “Walt had the good fortune to hire a great cook, Ray Piercy. A lot of the recipes came from him.”
Later, when the elder Dininger fell into poor health, Piercy took over the entire running of the restaurant, and the family eventually sold it to him.
When asked what he remembered as the specialty of the restaurant John Dininger replied, “It has always been about the breaded tenderloin. The place was famous for it back then.”
According to Doug Huff, current co-owner of Oasis Diner, the Hoosier-style tenderloin is still a huge favorite with patrons. Based on Piercy’s original recipe with input from the memories of people such as John Dininger, the present version overspills the plate.
“We use a bigger and better cut of meat,” Huff said, “and we sell about 400 of them a week.”
Before Huff, along with his father-in-law Don Rector, purchased the building from Indiana Landmarks, he had driven past the diner for years. “I’d wonder how such a historic landmark could be brought back to life,” he said.
After the Town of Plainfield conducted a feasibility study on the impact of a new location, Huff and Rector seized the opportunity and secured a new spot for the diner a mere four miles west of its original site.
Today, the Oasis Diner is completely renovated to look exactly how it did in 1954 when it was shipped via the railroad for assembly in Plainfield. The inside is decorated with displays of vintage lunch boxes and car license plates that span the 1950s through the 1990s.
“People come in all the time and share memories of being here. Some are former employees and others came in while on dates. The décor lets them relive their own history while reliving the history of the diner,” Huff said.
A promotion that changes seasonally, Back in Time Tuesday, enables customers to further reminisce. Select menu items, such as a slice of pie for 50 cents or a cup of coffee for a quarter, are offered while the music playlist features songs from past decades.
The menu still includes many traditional favorites such as chicken fried steak and biscuits and gravy. However, it has timely options such as gluten-free choices and vegetarian dishes, as well. Some iconic items such as the deluxe grilled cheese have been upgraded to reflect today’s more sophisticated palate with the addition of roasted tomatoes and avocado relish. The restaurant bakes its own breads, buns and pies in an in-house bakery. Sodas made in Avon are free of high-fructose corn syrup and taste very similar to the ones served in the 50s.
Different from the original diner is the free WiFi and additional dining space now available.
“I feel like it is about two or three times larger than it was when my uncle owned it, since there are more tables in the back,” Dininger said.
There is also a dog-friendly outdoor seating area in front. Plans are being made for an event room next to the basement bakery to further augment the catering business already in place.
“The new owners have done a great job of restoring the diner back to just how I remember it,” Dininger said enthusiastically. “I love to bring my daughter Morgan here for dinner so I can build memories with her.”
For him the new location is the perfect spot for the diner. “Besides being in a busy section of Plainfield, it’s right across the street from where Walt’s Motors, my uncle’s car dealership, used to be.”