Lebanon has had a long history of family restaurants and diners.

A family restaurant is an eating establishment that serves relatively simple food at reasonable prices, and caters to children as well as adults. Similarly, a diner is a small quintessentially family friendly American restaurant that serves mostly inexpensive American cuisine in a casual atmosphere and typically includes a long sit-down counter and booths.

Top: George Washington Tavern, 10th & Cumberland streets; Bottom: Fiesta Room, Lebanon, Penna. – ca. 1950s.

Some of the restaurants and diners from Lebanon’s past include the 4th Avenue Café (now the Gin Mill Restaurant and Tavern), Andrews Eagle Room Restaurant, Croce’s Café, Bailey’s Restaurant, Fenwick Tavern & Restaurant, Fireside Restaurant, Horn & Horn Family Restaurant, Jolly Molly Restaurant, Lebanon Family Restaurant, Lincoln Diner (now Mel’s Diner), Magic Carpet Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge, Palace Restaurant, Pushnik’s Diner, Roy’s Restaurant, Sprecher’s Diner (now Heisey’s Diner), and the William Penn Restaurant. 

The Fireside Restaurant, interior dining area, 1800 E. Cumberland St., Lebanon, Penna. – ca. 1960.

Some of the local specialties and delicacies served by Lebanon’s family restaurants and diners over the years include: stewed chicken & waffles (Bailey’s Restaurant), schnitz un knepp (Jolly Molly Restaurant), prime ribs of beef au jus sultan’s cut (Magic Carpet Restaurant), old-fashioned Pennsylvania Dutch chicken pot pie (Heisey’s Diner), tuna noodle casserole (Horn & Horn Restaurant), and fresh Pennsylvania Dutch foods including peach and apple dumplings and shoofly pie (Pushnik’s Diner).

Fast-food restaurants in Lebanon started to become prominent after the first McDonald’s restaurant opened in 1968. Many other fast-food restaurants including Burger King, Pizza Hut, and Wendy’s have followed. Recent food industry statistics reveal that 83% of Americans eat from fast-food restaurants at least once per week, and the regular consumption of fast food is increasing by 2.2% every year. 

Read More: As Burger King rebrands, we recall Lebanon-born cofounder David Edgerton, drawer of original “king” logo

Despite these incredible fast-food statistics, a few classic family restaurants and diners in Lebanon are still in business today, and remain an important part of the area’s identity, culture, and economy. The survivors include Mel’s Diner, Heisey’s Diner, and the Gin Mill Restaurant and Tavern.

Read More: The story of the Pushnik brothers and how they established some of Lebanon’s favorite diners

The Lincoln Diner opened at Lincoln Avenue and Cumberland Street in Lebanon in 1940. The kitchen was managed by Maude Artz, a well-known local hotel and restaurant operator. An April 16, 1940, Lebanon Daily News article reported the diner was “Lebanon’s newest addition to local and tourist accommodations.” Jack Brightbill was proprietor of the diner before and after the Great War and remained in the family until 1988, the Lincoln Diner was sold and its name changed to Mel’s Diner. A covered front entrance porch was added, but the original diner maintains most of its originality and has a classic retro appeal. The original diner structure was manufactured by Jerry O’Mahony Inc. of Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Mel’s Diner in 2022, from top left clockwise: Front sign along Cumberland Street; interior bar and stools; northeast diner view; and a vintage table-top juke box.

In February 1952, Sprecher’s Diner was opened north of Lebanon on Route 72 by Joseph Sprecher, a well-known local businessman. A Feb. 22, 1952, Lebanon Daily News article stated, “[Sprecher’s new Diner] will feature twenty-four-hour service seven days a week – full course meals will be served in its attractive dining room.”

Heisey’s Diner, from top clockwise: Sprecher’s Diner (vintage photo – mid-1950s); southwest Heisey’s Diner view in 2022; and interior booths, bar and stools, also contemporary.

In 1968, Sprecher’s Diner was sold and its name changed to Heisey’s Diner. A banquet room, enlarged kitchen, covered front porch entrance, a shingled roof built over the structure, and bar sections were added, but the original diner maintains most of its originality and has a classic retro appeal.

“Our two biggest current issues related to keeping the prices down to maintain family affordability are the rising food costs due to inflation, and disruptions in the supply chain,” Gary Heisey, the owner since 1990, said. Heisey also said he plans on keeping Heisey’s Diner a family-friendly restaurant for the foreseeable future. The original diner structure was also manufactured by Jerry O’Mahony Inc.

Read More: Heisey’s Diner got creative with take-out dining during worst of pandemic

In 1935, the 4th Avenue Café opened at 4th Avenue and Cumberland Street. It was managed by Peck Heath and Polley Olsiske.

In its early days it was known for serving locally brewed beers, including Lebanon Export Beer, and its free peanut nights. Over the years it changed ownership several times and was previously known as Peck’s Place, the 4th Avenue Gin Mill and the Old Gin Mill.

The Old Gin Mill Restaurant, 4th Avenue and Cumberland Street, Lebanon, Penna. – Lebanon Daily News, May 16, 1997.

Currently, the establishment is known as the Gin Mill Restaurant and Tavern, and is known for its steaks, burgers and seafood. The restaurant accommodates families with three classic interior dining areas and an outdoor dining area. It also features a fairly large bar area.

Mark Arnold, the current owner, said he plans on maintaining the current neighborhood and family-friendly business model despite the rapidly rising costs of operating a restaurant.

Read More: A lunchtime date at the Gin Mill (Lebanon Valley Food Critics)

Although the restaurant industry has experienced radical changes since the World War II era, especially with the rise of fast-food establishments, the appeal of classic family restaurants and American diners lives on in the U.S. Fortunately, a few of these classic family restaurants and American diners remain in business in the Lebanon area despite the recent hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation, and offer an eating and social experience that can be defined as a step back in time.

Three Lebanon family restaurant specials from the past: From top, clockwise: George Washington Tavern, Oct. 6, 1978; 4th Avenue Café, Dec. 29, 1973; and the Fenwick Hotel, June 28, 1974. (Lebanon Daily News)

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Editor’s Note: This article was updated after publication to clarify the phrasing about Maude Artz’s tenure at the Lincoln Diner and note Jack Brightbill’s relationship to the establishment.

Randy Jaye is an historian and Lebanon, PA native. He has recently researched and nominated four properties that have been successfully added onto the National Register of Historic Places. He is the author of three recent history books, and writes articles for historical journals, local newspapers, magazines,...