The All American Diner plays 1950s rock’n’roll through a tinny speaker, the retro booths are traditional red and the burgers are suitably oversized. The period decor and details are all right, but it all just feels so wrong.
The restaurant is 8,000 miles away from where the “diner” was born on the northeastern coast of the United States in the late 19th century. It sits on another continent, in a city that until recently didn’t exist, and now, a decade since construction began, sits just one-fifth finished.
Outside the window, it is not small town America that is viewable, but the rolling, verdant Sahyadri mountains of western India. On an August afternoon, it’s the permanent downpour of monsoon season – not late summer sunshine – beating on the sidewalk outside. The soundtrack is a tired collection of rock’n’roll, a dozen or so songs on repeat. Smartly dressed waiters greatly outnumber their clients and watch customers’ every move like hawks. There is no folksy smalltalk. When you take a sip of water, your glass is refilled before you have the chance to set it down.
American diner folklore traces the birth of the roadside “lunch wagon” to Rhode Island, 1872. Around the same time, the British Raj was establishing itself in India. Among the signature institutions of British imperial rule were “hill stations” – conurbations built high in the hills for colonial officials tired of the mad hustle and bustle of Indian cities.
Since independence in 1948, no new hill stations have been constructed – until Lavasa, the first city in India to be built whole cloth by a corporation, and where this simulacrum of an American diner sits. Officials in the city say they have already entertained official delegations from China, Latin America and Europe, keen to see if this might be the brave new world for 21st century cities.