If you arrive at Kim’s Diner before noon, your best option for breakfast is either the homemade biscuits with Texas-style white gravy or the pancakes-and-sausage plate. Lunch and dinner offerings are good, basic American food: grilled burgers and sandwiches half-wrapped in butcher paper so they can be picked up easily, fried okra, black-eyed peas, tater tots, onion rings. The shakes and malts, which the waitresses make to order, are delicious too.
The restaurant sits on a busy industrial thruway that runs from historically black East Waco to the white, affluent suburb of Woodway. In the parking lot stands the original, illuminated space-age sign from the 1950s, with “steak fingers” and “malts” featured prominently on panels around the restaurant’s name. In May, during the height of the pandemic, my daughter began working at Kim’s as a waitress, and I soon saw that the restaurant is not so much a mechanism for delivering food to paying customers as an entire ecosystem. It is, as people sometimes say admiringly, “an institution.”
In 1989, sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” in his book The Great Good Place. Third places are neither home nor work; they are pubs, bookstores, parks, and other public or public-private spaces where people spend time and interact. But not all third places are alike. Many are curated to attract people of certain classes and income levels, like the bars and cafés that offer handcrafted cocktails or Chemex pour-over coffees. Others are authentic, gritty dives that cater to people who are serious about their drinking and smoking, places blessedly free of hipsters and college graduates.
Except perhaps for bookstores and libraries, third places usually attract certain demographic profiles: retirees, college students, parents with small children, teenagers, and so on. This is natural enough. People want to be with others who are like them, who share their backgrounds and interests and pursuits and, increasingly, their political outlooks. But the exceptional place is the one that brings together people from all walks of life—where the county sheriff and Travis, a young man whose criminal record is well known, can sit back-to-back in adjoining booths, eating chicken-fried steak.
Places like these are increasingly rare in our stratified society, but they offer a compelling American vision of citizenship. We are different in all kinds of ways, but most people are still capable of interacting with others as moral equals. At Kim’s, patrons are not sorted by class, race, and political outlook. And the experience isn’t all about utility or profit. Third places are not just mobile offices with food, like the flexible workspaces of WeWork, but spaces in which people want to congregate and linger, for reasons they can’t exactly articulate.
On a rainy, cold morning in February, I sat down with Max, a Waco native and regular at Kim’s, who has been eating there since he was a small boy. He is now nearly sixty. He recalls that in his childhood, whenever his parents had a dinner party to attend, they would take him beforehand to Kim’s for a No. 14 (hamburger with mustard, pickle, and onion) and sometimes a Dr. Pepper (a rare treat).
He said the food has always been good, but the environment has varied over the years. At one point the restaurant was called a “Driveateria,” and patrons could either park outside and eat in their cars or come into the restaurant. In the 1960s and 1970s the ceiling tiles were stained a dirty yellow-brown, and upon entering the restaurant patrons met a wall of cigarette smoke. Now it is spotlessly clean and has been redecorated in a red-and-white “vintage diner” theme, complete with jukebox and nostalgic prints.
I asked Max why he had been coming to Kim’s for more than fifty years. I thought he would immediately have an answer, but he found the question surprisingly difficult. “Well,” he said, “the food is good.” Yes, I countered, but lots of places have good food. Is it nostalgia? He thought for a while and said that yes, there was probably a sense of nostalgia, but that wasn’t the main draw for him. Rather, he feels that he is known. The waitresses are unfailingly friendly, and they often tease him. He likes to sit at the bar up front and talk with the cooks, dishwashers, and busboys, too. Boris, the owner, has become a friend.
Does Max engage with other patrons at the restaurant? He said he generally doesn’t, though he overhears lots of conversations. A preponderance of patrons in recent years have been Texas conservatives, generally pro-Trump. Much of their talk relies on the authority of Fox News, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, and Max sometimes finds the conversations frustrating and inaccurate, even though he considers himself a moderate conservative.
I inquired whether he thought it might be his obligation to enter into conversation with them, and perhaps to correct them. “Heavens, no!” he shot back. That would be overstepping the bounds of civility. It isn’t my job, he said, to inflict my political positions on other people, especially not strangers. They’re free to hold their views, and I’m free to disagree. The problem in contemporary life is that people now advertise their political positions so prominently—as he put it, in all their “ugly glory”—that it becomes difficult to engage with them unless you are in full agreement.
Max told me he is also a regular at a downtown establishment that serves high-end coffee and high-end cocktails. It attracts a totally different demographic, and he goes there when he wants to have conversations about ideas. Many of the baristas and bartenders have master’s degrees and can pivot effortlessly in conversation from Wittgenstein’s philosophy to the varied botanical notes in artisanal gin. Sometimes he has invited these friends to visit Kim’s, and they always initially say no. The food will probably be unhealthy, they protest, and the patrons are mostly older and working-class, aren’t they? Now and then, he has persuaded people to try it, and it turns out they like diner food after all and feel comfortable at Kim’s despite themselves.
A sizable body of contemporary literature about “third places” draws on the work of early-twentieth-century sociologists Ferdinand Tönnies and Georg Simmel, who wrote about different kinds of social groupings and the qualities required by each. Tönnies famously distinguished two types of human association, some of which are goods in themselves, and communal (Gemeinschaft), such as families and neighborhoods—whereas others (Gesellschaft), such as cities, corporations and nation-states, aim at instrumental or external goods.
These contrasting kinds of association require different personality traits and abilities. The qualities of a successful father, for instance, are not necessarily those required by a city manager, mayor, or corporate employee. Yet in contemporary life we are often required to “toggle” quickly, and multiple times a day, among these different identities. A person might approach shopping for food or clothes in a purely contractual manner, looking for the best value at the lowest price; but nobody normally thinks of treating friends or family members in this way. As Michael Oakeshott wrote of friendship in his essay “On Being Conservative,” there is a categorical difference “between the death of a friend and the retirement of one’s tailor from business. The relationship of friend to friend is dramatic, not utilitarian; the tie is one of familiarity, not usefulness.”
In his short essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), Georg Simmel argues that large modern cities, with their complex social structures, vast populations, and currency-based economies, have produced people who are less emotionally rooted than those who live in the country or in small towns, where social ties are stronger. Cities, he writes, require that people possess an “intellectualistic quality,” meant to protect the inner life. But “the purely intellectualistic person is indifferent to all things personal.” As a result, people become disconnected and blasé. City-dwellers cannot possibly process fully all the stimuli that come at them in a given day.
Even more significantly, most of their relationships imperceptibly begin to mimic market exchanges and become utilitarian in character. Simmel observes that modern cities rely on impersonal suppliers who manufacture vast quantities of goods. These suppliers do not know their customers, and their customers do not know them. Relationships between supplier and customer are anonymous or distant, whereas individual relationships are based on affection and emotion. They exist in a sphere that is not wholly governed by economic considerations.
Third places like Kim’s are institutions that bridge the gap between the spheres of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Neither home nor work, they offer companionship and a sense of solidarity among people who have something—not everything, and not nothing—in common. What they have in common is a place, and a commitment to sustained interaction, and perhaps even some emotional bonds that have grown over time. It is a kind of “civil” relationship. Third places house your acquaintances, your fellow breakfast-eaters, your wait staff, and the guy who always sits across the restaurant from you. Most importantly, they are places where life is lived with some measure of leisure, free from the invasive purposiveness that seems to have overtaken modern American life. There are never any laptops at Kim’s.
Jerry and George are Vietnam veterans in their early seventies, and they tend to stay at Kim’s for hours at a time. Once or twice, the owner has had to call them on their cell phones to tell them that they need to leave because the restaurant is closing. Sometimes they come for a meal, but usually they just talk and drink coffee. If business is slow, the waitresses will sit down with them and listen to stories about Vietnam, where Jerry worked security with a canine unit and George was in the field for weeks at a time.
When asked, they couldn’t exactly say what they talk about for hours. “Do you talk politics?,” I inquired. “Never,” said Jerry, who is a Republican. “Thank goodness!” said George, a Democrat, with a laugh. He reported that Jerry sometimes tries to “set him straight” but it still hasn’t worked. The two men met at a VFW Hall event several years ago, and George was the only black person there. Jerry, who is white, struck up a conversation with him and they have been fast friends ever since. They both volunteer at the VA Hospital, where George worked for thirty-six years as a nurse and then as an occupational therapist.
I asked them the same question I had asked Max: Why are you regular customers at Kim’s? And again, neither one could give much of an answer. Both said the food was good, and the waitresses were friendly, and they liked the owner and the cooks. Unlike Max, George and Jerry talk to other customers and know them by name. The day I was there, two more regulars came in: a younger guy, who sells used cars at a nearby lot, and an older man in a pristine white cowboy hat and suit, who works in a nearby furniture store and looks as if he walked off the set of the 1980s TV show Dallas. I asked how often they came in and they replied, “About four times a day.” They take all their coffee breaks at Kim’s, sometimes leaving the waitresses nineteen-dollar tips for one-dollar cups of coffee.
Another regular is known as “the bacon guy,” because as soon as the waitresses see him getting out of his car they start preparing a huge plate of bacon for his standing order. On Wednesdays, there is an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting nearby, and people often come for lunch afterward, placing their copies of The Little Red Book on the table while they eat. Sometimes Boris, the restaurant’s owner, will bring out bowls of homemade soup or fried cow tongue that he has cooked up for no particular reason, or the Mexican cooks will make barbacoa street tacos, with cilantro, onion, and lime, or menudo, for the staff and regulars, at no charge. Many of the wait staff eat at Kim’s on their days off, and sometimes they stop in when they are not working just to say hello.
There is something refreshingly unselfconscious about Kim’s and the people who frequent it. Occasionally, a group of teenage girls will stop in to take pictures of themselves for Instagram. But this is the exception. Nobody here has a marketing plan, nobody is “curating” the space to attract a different customer base, and nobody is thinking about franchising. The establishment is content to be what it is. When Boris heard that I wanted to write a story about the restaurant, he had no idea why. He wasn’t against it; he just didn’t want to be interviewed because he didn’t think he had anything to say.
There is always a danger of sentimentalizing third places. Old sitcoms like Alice and Cheers do this at times, even as they capture something vital about the human need for friendship in settings that are neither home nor work. Some people are inclined to view places like Kim’s through the gauzy veil of nostalgia: “Ah yes, those were the days, when I was young: a simpler time, a better time!” Others visit places outside their normal ambit in the guise of sociologists stepping into a foreign environment: “How interesting those people are, but I’m glad I’m not part of their world.”
Perhaps the most common response of all is to ignore or reject places like Kim’s, in pursuit of the ever more carefully curated dining experience in which the interior decoration is just what we would have in our own homes, the clientele all the friends we want to see, and the food and drink exactly right, given our sophisticated tastes and dietary restrictions. Kim’s offers none of this. You are as likely to encounter someone with a face tattoo as you are to meet a perfectly coiffed society lady in her sixties.
This is why Kim’s and the millions of places like it across the country are vital for civic flourishing. When we go to these places we find that we are capable of recognizing and embracing a common American experience (doesn’t everyone secretly love diner food?) because we interact with people who are not necessarily like us. We restrain ourselves and temper our certainty that our own way of life is best; we do not feel inclined to evangelize or correct, or to grandstand on matters of politics. The neutral “third place” facilitates a kind of civil relationship, a natural mixing of races and classes, that can be cultivated only outside the spheres of work and home. The loss of these places is a loss to civic culture.
Yuval Levin writes persuasively about the importance of institutions, which he defines as “the durable forms of our common life: they are the shapes and structures of what we do together.” Every institution “involves a group of people organized around a common aim and taking action together toward achieving it in ways that give each person a role in relation to others.” But sometimes important institutions have no such common aim, or perhaps such aims as they have are merely those of facilitating leisure, friendship, and escape from the pathologies of our culture of achievement. Designed spaces, the high-end hangouts, are often too intentional to facilitate this in the way humbler establishments do. Designed spaces have marketing plans and decorators and targeted advertising. Many pride themselves on their exclusiveness and expense.
But humble institutions confer a greater benefit than just an abstract (if still real) notion of our common life. They also make the lives of particular individuals better and richer, ministering to the human need to be known and appreciated by others. Though technology increasingly encourages people to be “alone together,” we do not really want to exist only as numbers in algorithms and anonymous consumers in economic plans. Most of us steadfastly resist, as Simmel wrote in 1903, “being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.” Institutions like Kim’s are places where the “imponderability of personal relationships” is not stamped out by the rationally calculated economic egoism that rules so much of daily life, both in Simmel’s time and in ours. Or, as George told me, “Sometimes I forget what I eat for breakfast, even though I eat the same thing every time.” But then he said that the waitresses tell him not to worry. “We’ve got you,” they say.
I saw that I had been asking the wrong question of the regulars I had interviewed. “Why do you come to Kim’s?” assumes a kind of intentionality that they do not bring to bear on this question. More important than the quality of the food, the price, the speed of delivery—all reasonable considerations—is the place itself, the others who are there with them, and the recognition and appreciation each person gives to the others. I am sure nobody at the restaurant would ever think of putting it in these lofty terms. But it is true nevertheless.
Last week, during an unprecedented ice storm in Texas, I drove my daughter to work one morning. Despite my caution, I nearly lost control of the car twice. When we finally arrived, my daughter insisted I come inside to calm down. I had not intended to stay, so I came unprepared, without any work to do, and without my laptop. I was, in effect, forced to be leisurely, and to see Kim’s as its patrons do.
I sat at the bar and watched the employees get ready for the day. They distributed ketchup into little plastic cups, made a tremendous amount of ranch dressing, and assembled individual salt and pepper packets for the tables. The cooks and waitresses were already busy with the drive-through orders that came in steadily, because Kim’s was one of the few places in town that was open during the storm. The scene reflected, in Simmel’s apt description, a “smaller circle” of people who interact with each other on an ongoing basis, in a setting where “the inevitable knowledge of individual characteristics produces, with an equal inevitability, an emotional tone in conduct, a sphere which is beyond the mere objective weighting of tasks performed and payments made.” An old man walked in and ordered a chicken sandwich for his wife, and the owner shoveled snow. It was an altogether ordinary morning.
Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the honors program at Baylor University.