The Reality-TV Show That Speaks to a Homesick America
In 2007, in one of the first episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Guy Fieri visited Patrick’s Roadhouse, a railway-station-turned-restaurant in Santa Monica, California. The diner’s chef, Silvio Moreira, walked Fieri through the preparation of one of Patrick’s most notable dishes, the Rockefeller—a burger topped with mushrooms, sour cream, jack cheese, and … caviar. Fieri, looking playfully trepidatious, lifted the burger with both hands, said a fake prayer, and did what he would proceed to do thousands of times on the show: He took an enormous bite. And then he fell silent. “Wooow,” he commented, finally, shooting Moreira a what-have-you-done-to-me look.
“Different, huh?” Moreira said, grinning. “Yeah,” Fieri replied. The show’s camera discreetly cut away to the next scene.
The exchange would become a precedent on the long-running Food Network show fans know as Triple D: Fieri will simply not say anything negative about the food he eats on the air. Instead, his show elevates enthusiasm into an art form. Whether he is sampling burgers or enchiladas or barbecue or pizza or pho (or the pig’s head at Vida Cantina in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; or the grasshopper tacos at Taquiza in Miami Beach; or dinner-plate-size cinnamon rolls at Mountain Shadows in Colorado Springs, Colorado), his reaction to whatever he eats will be praise. Fieri is a host who is, definitionally, a guest. He visits restaurants to learn about them, and to learn from them. He insists that he’s not a food critic. Instead, “I’m a food highlighter. I’m bringing the greatest hits.”
I’ve been watching a lot of Triple D lately, in part because it’s one of those shows that always seems to be on, but also because it is a warm hug in television form. Pop culture may be rediscovering the truism that sincerity sells, but Triple D has been serving up communal kindness for years. I love the show’s low-stakes, no-frills premise: a tour of some of the best diners—and food trucks, and seafood shacks, and taco stands—around the country. I love the dad-jokey banter Fieri gets into with cooks as they make their restaurant’s favorite dishes together on camera. (“Some people play the violin; you play the mandolin!” Fieri tells the chef of an Outer Banks seafood restaurant as he slices cucumbers that will become fried pickles.)
Mostly, though, I love that Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives isn’t actually about the food. It’s a travel show, an exploration of individual places, as seen through some of the restaurants that nourish the people who live there. Diners have long doubled as symbols of thrift, of simplicity, of community. Triple D takes the symbolism one step further. It explores what the art critic Lucy Lippard called “the lure of the local,” the notion that locations on the map have depth as well as width, functioning not just as places in the world but also as ways of giving the world its meaning. In a moment when many Americans are renegotiating their relationship with their local community, Triple D is a wistful kind of paradox: It is a national show that celebrates local life. The series spotlights the quirks—the accidents of geography and history and culture—that make one area of the country just a little bit different from every other.
When Fieri visits a restaurant, he doesn’t just name the city where it’s located; he names the neighborhood. He goes to Armory Square in Syracuse, and to Columbus Park in Kansas City. “When I’m cruising through a beach town anywhere in America,” Fieri says, shortly before he introduces viewers to Patrick’s Roadhouse, “I come across these funky little places that make me ask, ‘Is it a tourist trap, or do the locals really eat there?’” The conceit of Triple D is that, across the board, the locals really eat there. “People always ask us, ‘How did you pick that place?’” Fieri says in one episode. “It’s not just about ‘Do they make great food?’ They’ve got to have the character; they’ve got to have the attitude; they’ve got to have the energy; they’ve got to have the story. They’ve got to be the real deal. They’ve got to be the full package.”
Many of the restaurants featured on the show have their own microculture. Patrons of the Russian River Pub—a “gastrodive,” of sorts, in Forestville, California—sign the wall after they’ve had their meal. Fans of the Frosted Mug in Alsip, Illinois, called themselves “Muggers.” Franks, a converted dining car in Kenosha, Wisconsin, dictates that patrons pour their own coffee—and also that, once people have filled their own cup, they go down the line to see whether anyone else wants a top-off. Franks is no-nonsense and beloved. “It’s kind of a family tradition,” a teenage girl tells Fieri of the spot. “My grandparents used to hang out here, my parents hang out here, and now I hang out here.”
Some critical assessments of Triple D have involved revisions. The viewer, seeing a show whose primary mode is earnestness and whose primary aesthetic is kitsch, initially doubted, but then they came around. I became a convert in large part because the show devotes so much of its time to interviews like the one Fieri conducted with the teenager in Kenosha. On the show, Fieri operates as a documentarian, essentially, an eager reporter who shares the stories of the places he visits. Fieri won the second season of The Next Food Network Star, a reality contest seeking to find new personalities who could become the next Giada De Laurentiis or Bobby Flay. Triple D launched soon thereafter, as an ode to America’s greasy spoons. In a few of those early episodes, Fieri tried to cook some of the food himself, under the tutelage of the restaurants’ cooks. (The first-ever episode of Triple D features his attempt to make spanakopita.) Soon, though, a more unassuming formula coalesced. The cooks do their own cooking, preparing the dishes that have made the restaurants popular. Fieri typically acts as a sous chef, handing ingredients over and helping with the kneading, mixing, and stirring as needed. “Yes, chef,” is one of his most common lines on the show.
While the cooks cook, though, they also chat. Fieri won Food Network Star in part because of his ability to turn food into conversation: He could talk as he prepped, explain techniques, describe flavors and textures, and tell stories that connected the food to his own life. On Triple D, Fieri applies that skill to his interactions with cooks and servers and restaurateurs. A typical segment of the show will not just feature a dish prepared from scratch. It will also tell the story of the restaurant itself, whether it’s an institution or an upstart.
Part of that story will be what the restaurant means to its community. Each segment dedicates a hefty portion of its airtime to the restaurant as a gathering place: its atmosphere, its clientele, what it means to the people who love it. In one episode, Fieri goes to Syracuse, New York, to visit a relaxed Italian joint called Pastabilities. In his capacity as a reporter, he learns about the nickname its customers have given it. He confirms his reporting with a couple seated at the bar. “Do you call it … Pasta’s?” Fieri asks. “Oh, all the locals do,” one of them replies. Then she looks at him, fake-mockingly. “I can’t believe you didn’t know that.” Fieri grins. “Well, now I do!” he replies.
One dish Fieri makes with the chef-owner of Pastabilities is the restaurant’s spin on a regional favorite: chicken riggies, a rigatoni dish with chicken. (Riggie is short for rigatoni.) Pasta’s is known for its “wicked” chicken riggies—so named because the sauce for the pasta is spicy. To watch Triple D is to marinate in such regionalisms: Cincinnati chili, New Orleans muffulettas, Memphis barbecue, Pennsylvania scrapple, the green-chile cheeseburgers of New Mexico, the deep-fried cheese curds of the upper Midwest. Those specificities are small deals, and big ones. One of the conditions of life in the modern world, the geographer Edward Relph argued, is a sense of ambient placelessness—an erosion of people’s connection to specific locations that creates, in turn, an alienation from them.
Relph was writing in the 1970s, before the arrival of Walmart Supercenters and Amazon Prime and the restaurant-without-a-restaurant known as the ghost kitchen. The anxieties he laid out, though, have become only more acute. “All politics is local,” the old saying goes; often, though, even the most traditionally place-based elements of American life take their shape from the trickle-down effects of national culture. Arguments at local school-board meetings parrot the outrages manufactured every day on national talk radio and national cable news. Local newspapers, the outlets that once connected communities to themselves, are dying in droves. Many Americans would be hard-pressed to tell you who their local council members are, or who their state legislators are—but able to tell you, in detail, the latest scandals involving the national government. Pop culture contributes to the disconnect. Many TV shows, whether scripted or reality, eschew the lure of the local. Sitcoms have settings, but quite often lack meaningful locations. The Real Housewives franchise takes place in different cities; the show’s most common sites of action, though, are the cast members’ marbled mansions. One of the foundational jokes of The Simpsons is that Springfield could be, essentially, anywhere.
What Triple D understands is that such nationalized treatments of place miss something crucial. Locality matters—not just in a “Big Sort” kind of way, but in a more intimate kind of way. Place is also a matter of identity. And restaurants provide many kinds of sustenance. That food is a source of connection is a cliché—not only the stuff of national myths (the American melting pot, the American salad bowl) but also the premise of many food shows. Reality series such as Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation are powerful in part because they embrace the mythology while also questioning it: They treat food, itself, as culture. They take for granted that food, itself, is political.
Triple D’s pitch is different. The show practices a politics of anti-politics. In its world, burgers and fries, provided they are delicious enough, can bring people together across whatever other differences might divide them. In his 2008 book Diners, Drive-ins and Dives: An All-American Road Trip … With Recipes!—one of the earliest of the show’s many brand extensions—Fieri summarizes a typical conversation with the owners of the restaurants he highlights. “They say thank you so much for coming,” he writes, “and I say thank you so much for existing, because this is what America is about, the opportunity and the cultural bridges.”
Triple D occasionally nods to the fact that restaurants are also businesses, and also employers; many of the pragmatic conversations, though, read as interruptions. They puncture the fantasies the show is selling. But discussions of economic reality became more common, appropriately, during the pandemic. In April 2020, Food Network began airing Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: Takeout, in which featured restaurants sent their food, prepped but not cooked, to Fieri’s home in Northern California. Fieri and his son Hunter made the meals in their sprawling outdoor kitchen, instructed by cooks who Zoomed in for the occasion. The episodes doubled as telethons, of sorts: As the typical chatting and joking went on, viewers were encouraged to contribute to the relief fund Fieri developed in partnership with the National Restaurant Association. By May, the fund had raised $21.5 million, offering $500 grants to hospitality workers affected by the pandemic. But Fieri undid some of the goodwill he had earned with that effort in an interview this summer in which he suggested that, for restaurant workers, collecting federal unemployment benefits was more appealing than working—and a detriment to the restaurants that had employed them.
Fieri, the celebrity, had done what Fieri, the host, refuses to do: He’d gone negative. But the comment inadvertently expressed the most basic logic of the show that has made Fieri famous. Triple D regards restaurants as almost sacred places. And the front of the house, in particular, is a site of conversion: a space where people can come not just to eat a good meal but also to be transformed. Into a community. Into a family. “You come in here, and you immediately feel that you’re home,” a Patrick’s customer tells Fieri.
In another episode, Fieri interviews a waitress at Brint’s Diner in Wichita, Kansas. Soon we find out that she’s engaged to Brint’s owner, Jessie—and that her daughter and his niece are both waitresses at the restaurant. Another family-run restaurant is Leo’s BBQ in Oklahoma City. “The cake is a family recipe,” Fieri says, of the restaurant’s famous strawberry-banana dessert. “And Charles is keeping the whole place a family operation. Aunt Cookie’s making salads. Aunt Flo is waiting tables. That’s Mom at the counter. And Nephew Reggie is getting the same training Charles [the restaurant owner] got from his dad.”
“This is our house,” Charles says. “It’s your house while you’re here.”
I’ve lived on the East Coast for many years. I still think of home, though, as the place I grew up: an eccentric city on the California coast where the air smells like the sea. My tiny patch of the planet was recently given the national treatment. Big Little Lies was shot in Monterey, and was presumably about Monterey; the show also made my hometown completely unrecognizable to me. It was Guy Fieri who made it familiar again. In an episode shot in the area, he visits one of the spots that locals know about, and love: a bustling restaurant, situated between a naval postgraduate campus and some car dealerships, called Monterey’s Fish House.
“I say it all the time,” Fieri says in one episode: “If it’s funky, I’ll find it.” And, in this case, find it he did. Fieri sampled the same dish I often get when I go to the Fish House—a version of cioppino, the bright, tomato-based seafood stew that Italian fishermen popularized in California. He also tried the oysters harvested from the bay and then cooked, in their shells, on a wood-fired grill. He interviewed people describing the food, the atmosphere, what the restaurant means to them. Their answers amounted to one of the show’s most familiar refrains: It’s not fancy. But it’s ours.
Watching the Fish House episode makes me homesick. It makes me nostalgic for a place that never left. The enthusiasms of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives can sometimes read, in that way, as elegiac. Many restaurants—the sites of first dates and fiftieth, of meetings and reunions—closed during the pandemic. Triple D is a reminder of what’s lost when they go away. But it is a reminder, too, of how much life there is in the local. The show’s 14th year coincides with a moment when Americans are finding small ways to reclaim a sense of place. The pandemic has alienated people from one another; it has also brought local communities together. New TV shows (Mare of Easttown, Dopesick, and many others) are exploring, with rich specificity, how their locations shape their characters. Nonprofit journalism initiatives are attempting to bolster regional media coverage to ensure that people have news that speaks to, and convenes, local communities. Triple D anticipated some of those efforts. It celebrates what it means to be situated in a given place. The spots the show visits are not simply settings or backdrops or pin-drops on a map. They’re home.