The diner was invented in Providence in 1872, by entrepreneur Walter Scott who brought his horse-drawn freight wagon in front of the offices of the Providence Journal, serving simple fare to the newspaper workers (almost all men) as they left work. Mobile lunch wagons gave way to stationery pre-fab restaurants in the early 1900s, and by the 1940s, stainless steel diners were opening around the country, eventually yielding to larger pre-fabricated restaurants, and then to the fast-food establishments that dot US highways today.
In and around Providence, there are still a few places to experience an authentic diner. Most notably, there's the Modern Diner, at 364 East Avenue, in Pawtucket. It dates back to 1940, and, according to the National Register of Historic Places, it's one of two surviving Sterling Streamliners, a line of customized, factory-built, "modernistic" diners manufactured in the 1930s and early 1940s by the J.B. Judkins Co. of Merrimack, Massachusetts. There's good traditional diner fare here -- it's a great place for breakfast -- but you'll want to be sure to sit in the Streamliner and not the more modern addition behind it to get the full experience.
Cast back even further in time and hit Haven Brothers, which is actually a food truck. Although it's hauled by a diesel engine and not by a horses, it's as close as you can get to experiencing the original Providence diner in Providence itself. Check out this list of diners in and around Providence .
A final note for true diner enthusiasts: click over to Providence's American Diner Museum. It's not really a museum -- it doesn't have an exhibit space -- but it helps to save and preserve diners as living museums, and its website has an interesting list of diners for sale.
Read more about Rhode Island's Favorite Foods.