Hot and Hearty Diner Sandwiches Revisited

By Debra Daniels-Zeller

The Diner Era

In the past decade there has been a revival of interest in diners. While most of us think of diners as pop culture — a piece of Americana, nostalgia in its purest form — they were the common man or woman's restaurant in a unique American style of architecture in the '50s. Though fast food chains replaced many of them in the '60s, diners are now considered classic examples of American cultural history. In 1998 seven diners were added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Diners were not an offshoot of the railroad industry but an evolution from walk-up lunch wagons with limited menu selections. Walter Scott created the first lunch wagon in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872. These mobile eateries were wooden wagons converted into short-order eating establishments. By 1884 they were stationary indoor luncheonettes with decorations on the walls and stools at a counter. By 1920 the diner had evolved to the classic look of a railroad dining car, hence the name "diner." Early on, some railroad cars were used to create diners, but by the '30s commercial diner manufacturing companies were as busy as car manufacturers, turning out the popular eating establishments. Booths were eventually created to attract women and families, but the essential part of every diner remained the counter and stools where regular customers dined alone, often chatting with the waitress or other customers. There were some wooden diners, but most had shiny stainless steel exteriors, with bright colors and neon signs. In 1943, 13 companies manufactured diners, and in the '50s and early '60s, diners were a traveler's restaurant of choice. Diners were a part of communities where strangers came together as friends, and the food was simple, homey, and filling.

Short-order cooking was the norm in diners; food and service was informal. Though it's trendy to think of '50s food with nostalgia for the past, food selections in diners were generally fried, overcooked, or high in fat. The menu boards were brief, featuring "specials of the day." Menus included such items as biscuits and gravy, meatloaf sandwiches, hot dogs, baked beans, French fries, and chicken fried steak, with a few salad selections.

Reinventing Diner Sandwiches

The real comfort food of diners in the '50s probably served up enough artery-clogging fat for everyone in town, but what we really want today is comfort food without the incredible portions of fat. Intrigued by the concept of diner food, especially hot sandwiches, I found that by using lower fat vegetarian substitutions, we can still evoke comfort feelings without the greasy animal products or calorie-laden ingredients. In other words, we can still have the diner look, taste, and comfort feel without the heavy diner fare feeling after we eat.

Reinventing diner sandwiches involves finding the right vegetarian substitutes, such as portabello mushrooms for burgers, crumbled tempeh for a "meaty" texture, warm sliced seitan instead of chicken, and bean or lentil loaf for meatloaf. And when making your own sandwich versions, remember there are vegan faux meats, including bacon and soy sausage variations. Check the soy dairy case in your local market for selections, but be sure to read the ingredients to make sure they are dairy- and egg-free.

Baking, roasting, and using minimal oil in cooking reduces the fat content, and when fat is reduced, taste can be elevated with marinades, herbs and spices, or condiments, such as barbecue sauce and your own sauce creations. Consider any type of vegan sauce you might find when perusing cookbooks fair game for adding to your own creative diner sandwiches. Silken tofu makes a good base for sour cream-like sauces. You can also use puréed vegetables, such as roasted peppers, to top your diner sandwich recreations. And additions, such as spicy gourmet peppers, sautéed onions, or strips of roasted peppers, turn average sandwiches into gourmet diner sandwiches.

The type of bread you choose is also important to the whole look and taste of the sandwich. Here too, there are many options to consider. You may want your hot filling stuffed inside pita bread, heaped onto freshly baked biscuits or a burger-type bun, layered on dark whole grain or rye bread, or spooned over English muffins. You could even lightly grill the bread with a thin coating of soy margarine or olive oil to help brown the bread. Any of your favorite diner sandwich recollections or dream creations can be made into a tasty, lower fat vegan version.

Once you make your sandwich selection, consider side additions, such as baked beans, coleslaw, baked country fries, mashed potatoes, or simple braised collard greens. Many of the side dishes can be made up to a day ahead and simply reheated to go with your hot sandwiches.

A collection of great sandwiches, sauces, spread creations, and a few side dishes to go with your sandwich follow. How about inviting some neighbors over and having a diner sandwich party tonight? Better yet, make it a potluck diner sandwich party and see what wonderful vegan side dishes your friends bring.

Diner Sandwich Fixings: Bread and Roll Options

Biscuits; burger-type buns; cornbread; French rolls; English muffins (for open-face sandwiches); focaccia (sliced in half lengthwise); pita bread; poor boy rolls; whole wheat, rye, or pumpernickel bread


Artichoke hearts; sautéed onions, mushrooms, peppers, and zucchini; seasonal greens; sliced tomatoes; cucumbers; olives; beets; chopped marinated hot peppers; avocado; green chilies; pickles; relish; chutney


Marinara sauce; chili sauce; hot barbecue sauce; puréed roasted red pepper sauce; pesto; Spicy Tofu Sour "Cream"; White Bean, Yam, and Roasted Garlic Gravy; Vegan Country Gravy

Roasted Smoky Eggplant Sandwich

(Makes 4 sandwiches)

Liquid smoke lends a hint of summer barbecue to this savory sandwich. It can be found in most grocery stores. You can also grill the eggplant and onions for the authentic grilled flavor. Always salt the eggplant before using because this draws out any bitter juices and the eggplant will absorb less oil when cooking than eggplant that has not been salted.

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke hickory seasoning
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch slices
  • 1 small red pepper, seeded and cut into ½-inch wide strips
  • 4 ½-inch slices of a medium to large eggplant, salted on both sides
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Tomato slices
  • Salsa
  • Fresh spinach leaves
  • 4 French rolls

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine olive oil and liquid smoke in a small bowl, whisking together. Lay onions and peppers in a shallow baking dish.

Allow eggplant slices to lie in salt for about 15 minutes. Rinse. With a clean dish towel, gently pat the eggplant slices dry. Brush both sides of eggplant slices with the smoke/oil combination and lay in the baking dish. Drizzle any remaining oil over the peppers and onions.

Roast eggplant, peppers, and onions for 35-40 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Lay vegetables on half of roll. Season with salt and pepper, then top with tomato slices, a dollop of salsa, and some spinach leaves. Cover with remaining roll and serve.

Total calories per serving: 169 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 27 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 243 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Portabello Burgers with Sliced Tomatoes and Spicy Tofu Sour "Cream"

(Makes 4 sandwiches)

Make the Spicy Tofu Sour "Cream" up to a day ahead so the flavors have time to marry. If tofu "cream" separates a bit, simply stir it.

You can make different flavors of tofu sour "cream." Omit the chipotle chili powder and replace it with the flavoring of your choice. For example, you could omit the garlic and use any one of the following: 1 teaspoon curry powder, 2 Tablespoons pesto, 1 Tablespoon horseradish with a bit of Dijon mustard, or 1 Tablespoon orange juice concentrate combined with 1 Tablespoon freshly grated ginger.

Spicy Tofu Sour "Cream":

  • ½ cup silken tofu
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon chipotle chili powder (in the herb section of natural foods stores
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Pinch of salt


  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 medium portabello mushrooms, wiped off and with gills and stems removed
  • Sprinkling of salt
  • 4 whole grain buns
  • Sliced tomatoes

Combine tofu, lemon juice, oil, chipotle chili powder, garlic, and salt in a blender, and blend until smooth and creamy. Set aside in the refrigerator until the mushrooms are ready.

Blend balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and garlic in a small bowl. Brush onto mushrooms, then pour the remaining marinade over them. Let them sit for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lay mushrooms in a shallow baking dish and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 15 minutes, turn, and bake for 10-15 more minutes. Place roasted mushrooms on buns, then top with a big dollop of Spicy Tofu Sour "Cream" and tomatoes.

Total calories per serving: 414 Fat: 15 grams
Carbohydrates: 56 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 500 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams

Tempeh Joes

(Makes 2 large sandwiches)

Sloppy Joes went vegetarian and are much better than you remember them. The chipotle chili powder lends a smoky flavor to the filling.

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • ½ cup finely chopped green pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 ounces tempeh, crumbled
  • ¼ teaspoon chipotle chili powder (in the herb section of natural foods stores
  • ⅓ cup barbecue sauce
  • 2 or 3 Tablespoons water
  • 2 large hamburger-type buns or thick slices of cornbread cut in half

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil, onions, and peppers. Cover with a lid that fits directly over the vegetables, reduce heat to low, and sweat the vegetables until soft. This takes about 7 minutes. Add garlic, tempeh, and chipotle chili powder. Stir and continue to cook until tempeh begins to brown and get slightly crusty. Add barbecue sauce and 2 Tablespoons water. Cover and cook for 20 minutes. If mixture gets too thick, add a little more water. Remove cover, stir, and cook until thick enough to heap onto buns or cornbread.

Total calories per serving: 420 Fat: 19 grams
Carbohydrates: 45 grams Protein: 22 grams
Sodium: 591 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

Veggie Reuben Subs

(Makes 4 sandwiches)

Vegan bacon substitutes can be found in most grocery and natural foods stores in the refrigerated soy section.

  • 4 hero, hoagie, or poor boy rolls, sliced in half
  • ¼ cup vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon grated red onion
  • ¾ teaspoon prepared horseradish
  • 1 Tablespoon ketchup or chili sauce
  • Dash of vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
  • 8 slices vegan bacon
  • 1-½ cups sauerkraut, heated
  • 4 slices vegan cheese, Monterey Jack-style (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the rolls on a large piece of aluminum foil, wrap securely, and heat in the oven for 10 minutes while you prepare the filling. In a small bowl combine mayonnaise, onions, horseradish, ketchup or chili sauce, and dash of Worcestershire sauce. Blend well and set aside. Heat a skillet over medium heat and cook bacon until browned.

When rolls are warm, spread with a bit of the mayonnaise blend, and layer with vegan bacon, sauerkraut, and vegan cheese, if desired. Cover with top of roll. Serve with pickles or Oven-Roasted Country Fries.

Total calories per serving: 405 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 49 grams Protein: 19 grams
Sodium: 1,306 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Warm Canellini Beans, Squash, and Roasted Pepper on Black Bread

(Makes 4 open-face sandwiches)

You can save time making this sandwich by using roasted peppers from a jar instead of roasting a fresh pepper. Jars of roasted peppers, stuffed olives, and capers can be found in most supermarkets near the salad dressings. Dark rye bread is also available in most grocery stores, but you can often find the best sourdough rye or spelt bread in natural foods or specialty stores.

  • ¼ cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
  • ¼ cup boiling water
  • 1 large red pepper
  • ¾ teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1-½ cups cubed butternut squash
  • ½ Tablespoon olive oil
  • ½ cup diced shallots or red onions
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • One 15-ounce can canellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • ½ cup sliced jalapeño-stuffed olives
  • 1 Tablespoon capers
  • 4 slices whole grain dark rye or spelt bread

Soak sun-dried tomatoes in boiling water until soft. Roast red pepper under the broiler, turning until all sides are blackened and pepper is soft. Place pepper in a saucepan, cover, and let cool. When cool, peel and seed the pepper and cut into thin strips. Set aside. Toast the fennel in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 5 minutes. When done, crush the fennel with a mortar and pestle. Steam squash until tender and set aside.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil, shallots or onions, and garlic. Reduce heat, cover with a lid that fits directly over vegetables, and cook until shallots are soft. Add canellini beans and fennel. Mash with a potato masher until mixture is the consistency of thick, slightly lumpy mashed potatoes. Blend in soaked tomatoes and water, olives, and capers. Mix well. Gently blend in steamed squash. Spread mixture over bread slices, and lay strips of roasted peppers over the beans and squash.

Total calories per serving: 232 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 45 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 970 milligrams Fiber: 11 grams

Barbecue Lentil Loaf Sandwiches

(Makes about 10 sandwiches)

This loaf can be made one night and enjoyed in various versions the next day. My favorite is sliced lentil loaf with dairy-free gravy on whole grain bread, served with mashed potatoes. The lentil loaf can be sliced and warmed up in a nonstick frying pan.

  • 1 cup brown or green lentils, rinsed
  • Water to cover lentils
  • 1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs, toasted
  • 1 cup finely chopped celery
  • ¼ cup grated onion
  • 1-½ Tablespoons tomato paste
  • ½ teaspoon sage
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
  • ½ cup silken tofu
  • ½ cup finely chopped, toasted walnuts
  • 1 cup barbecue sauce

In a medium saucepan, cover lentils with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until lentils are done, about 30-35 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drain lentils. In a large mixing bowl combine lentils, toasted bread crumbs, celery, onions, tomato paste, sage, salt, and cayenne. Blend well. In a blender or in a small bowl with a hand blender, blend silken tofu and about 1 cup of the loaf mixture. Mix this blended mixture back into the loaf mix, then stir in walnuts. Turn into a 9" x 5" loaf pan and make a lengthwise indentation in the middle. Pour the barbecue sauce down the middle. Bake for 35 minutes, or until set and slightly browned on top.

Remove from oven and let cool for a while before running a knife all around the edges to loosen the loaf. Turn the loaf out onto a serving platter to slice.Slice loaf and prepare sandwich of choice. Serve with mashed potatoes or Classic Coleslaw.

Option 1

  • Sliced burger type buns
  • Sautéed onion rings
  • Hot barbecue sauce

Option 2

  • Sourdough French bread
  • Tomato
  • Lettuce
  • Pickles
  • Condiments — mustard or mayonnaise

Option 3

  • Sliced biscuits
  • Vegan Country Gravy
Total calories per serving: 180 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 25 grams Protein: 9 grams
Sodium: 653 milligrams Fiber: 8 grams

Open-Faced Seitan Sandwich with White Bean, Yam, and Roasted Garlic Gravy

(Makes 4 sandwiches)

White beans and a baked yam create a wonderful savory gravy without the fat content or animal products in a traditional kind. Seitan can be found in natural foods stores and some grocery stores near the refrigerated soy section. Pepperoncini peppers can be found in grocery stores near the olives and pickles.

  • 1 head garlic
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • One 15-ounce can white or Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 small baked yam (about 1 cup)
  • 1 or 2 chopped Pepperoncini peppers
  • 2 Tablespoons raspberry or balsamic vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • Salt to taste
  • 4 ounces seitan, cut into cubes
  • 4 thick slices of whole grain bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place garlic head on a piece of aluminum foil and drizzle olive oil over it. Wrap foil securely around garlic and roast for 1 hour. When garlic is done, let cool slightly, then squeeze garlic into a saucepan with beans, yam, peppers, vinegar, and water.

Purée with a hand blender and add salt to taste. Stir in seitan. Gently heat for about 10 minutes. Serve over thick slices of whole grain bread.

Total calories per sandwich: 307 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 54 grams Protein: 22 grams
Sodium: 676 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Classic Coleslaw Revisited

(Serves 4)

Make this salad ahead so the flavors in the dressing will have time to marry and become more complex. Add some grated carrots to the cabbage in this salad for a touch of color.

    ⅓ cup vegan mayonnaise 3 Tablespoons red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, or plain vinegar 1-½ Tablespoons frozen orange juice concentrate ½ Tablespoon Dijon mustard 4 cups shredded green cabbage ¼ cup sliced green onions Salt and pepper to taste

Combine mayonnaise, vinegar, concentrate, and mustard together. Blend with cabbage and onions in a medium mixing bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Total calories per serving: 121 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 126 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

On the Side Oven-Roasted Country Fries

(Serves 4)

Substitute two medium sweet potatoes for the potatoes in this recipe, and you'll have wonderful sweet potato country fries.

  • 3 medium Yellow Fin or Yukon Gold potatoes, washed
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • Generous pinch of salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut potatoes into fries, toss with oil, and spread in a single row on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 25 minutes, then turn and bake for about 20 more minutes or until done.

Total calories per serving: 105 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 0 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Vegan Country Gravy

(Makes about 11-¼ cup servings)

Bragg Liquid Aminosä has a taste that is similar to soy sauce, but it is more versatile and can help create a tasty gravy. It is available in natural foods stores.

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 Tablespoons whole wheat flour
  • 2 cups plain soymilk
  • 2 Tablespoons Bragg Liquid Aminos or soy sauce
  • 1-½ cups thinly sliced mushrooms (optional)

Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add oil, onions, and jalapeños. Stir, reduce heat, and cook until onions and jalapeños are tender. Add garlic, then stir and cook for about 1 minute before stirring in flour. Make sure flour is evenly distributed before slowly adding soymilk — ⅓ cup at a time. With each milk addition, stir the gravy until it thickens. When all the soymilk is added, blend in Bragg Liquid Aminosä or soy sauce and mushrooms. Stir, cover, and cook until mushrooms are soft. Serve over hot sandwiches and mashed potatoes.

Total calories per serving: 56 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 154 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent contributor to the Vegetarian Journal.