The Great American Diner: USC alumnus opens diner in Paris

Craig Carlson, who graduated from USC in 1992, opened ‘Breakfast in America’ in 2003. Photo by Dominic Davis | Daily Trojan

In Paris, hidden between the outdoor cafes and artisan boulangeries lies a tiny diner called Breakfast in America. It’s a small diner, with retro 1960s booths, movie and television posters plastered all over the walls, toasters on every table and a jukebox in the corner playing Bob Dylan at all hours of the day. You’ve probably seen a diner like this before — in movies, in television shows and even scattered throughout Southern California. But this diner is owned by USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus Craig Carlson, who moved to Paris first in the late 1990s while he was working on a television show, then permanently in the early 2000s with the idea of creating a “Great American Diner” in Paris.

Breakfast in America opened in 2003, during one of the heaviest snowfalls Paris had experienced in years. Just a year prior, Carlson was standing in line at the Pantry in downtown Los Angeles, when the idea of opening the diner came to him.

“When I came back [to Paris], I just wanted breakfast so badly,” Carlson said. “I wanted a big ham steak, and eggs and home fries. I realized it was the one thing I missed. I missed breakfast in America. [Then], I turned to my friends and told them, ‘That’s what I was going to call the diner.’”

But owning a diner was not always Carlson’s dream. He first dreamed of making it big in Hollywood and graduated from the School of Cinematic Arts in 1992 with a master’s degree in the film and television program. After graduating, Carlson worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood but was never given his big break.

“I worked with Warner Brothers International Television [on a show] called The New Adventures of Robin Hood, and it was a kids’ show,” Carlson said. “I did it for three seasons as post-production supervisor. I wrote an episode that did not get made. It was during this time I realized I wanted to live in Paris. I was tired of the film business, the ups and the downs, and I wanted something different.”

But the path to opening a diner was a long and hard one — which he credits USC for helping him overcome. Early on, Carlson created a preliminary business plan and realized he needed to raise $100,000 on top of the $60,000 he owed in student debt.

“I started looking for investors and ultimately the USC alumni saved me,” Carlson said. “Out of 30 investors, 20 of them were from the film school. If I didn’t have that, this wouldn’t be here.”

Then, after finding the location for Breakfast in America in the heart of the historic Latin Quarter, the next challenge was recreating the actual aesthetics of an American diner.

“I wanted something that looked like a neighborhood place that had been here for a long time,” Carlson said.

He found a tiny café within the 5th arrondissement which had been renovated in the ’60s. He stuffed his suitcase with his grandmother’s old belongings, including a transistor radio, and began to decorate the diner, later calling in an interior architect to come recreate the booths and feels of a classic American diner. He also found a way to incorporate his love of film by hanging movie and television posters all over the diner. He uses these posters as a reference for French people to visualize what an American diner is like.

The last big adjustment was the portion sizes. America is notorious for having large portion sizes, just as Paris is for having the opposite. This put Carlson in an awkward situation, as he wanted to make sure his American customers could get the most out of their food without drowning Parisians with syrup and home fries.

“We had to find a medium,”  Carlson said. “[Parisians] are stunned by the portion sizes. And in the beginning, I would ask if they would like to take it home in a doggie bag, and they would say ‘no’ because it was very gauche to take things home in a doggie bag.”

Now, all day and all night, the diner serves omelets, bottomless cups of coffee or “joes” with large portions of home fries, along with various types of milkshakes — including one known as the Obama Shake. The diner’s most famous dish of  thick sugary syrup and pancakes is now known by the Parisians as les crêpes américaines.

“The whole first couple of years I had to explain to French people what exactly our breakfast was and how it worked,” Carlson said. “For example, pancakes — the closest thing is a crêpe. Some of my first customers, when I would give them syrup to put on it, they would say, ‘I don’t want sugar on it.’”

But things have slowly begun to change within the City of Lights, as more American influences begin to seep into their culture. Doggie bags are no longer gauche, and hamburgers are beginning to appear all over the menu of even traditional-style Parisian restaurants.

“It used to be your traditional tartare, and now, it starts with an entire burger list and then four or five traditional dishes,” Carlson said. “I had to get over the stereotype.”

And 15 years later, Carlson is beginning to see how his pact on Parisian culture is slowly taking effect.

“French customers are now ordering breakfast at all hours,” he said. “They used to do that on Sundays during brunch and occasionally during the week. But after lunch and dinner, never. But just last night I was in here and a customer ordered French toast, omelets, home fries and a bottle of California wine. I thought that was great.”

Now, after the release of his New York Times-bestselling book Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France (link), along with the book tour that followed, Carlson is optimistic about the future. He toyed with the idea of expanding all throughout Europe, but never quite found the time, as Paris captured most of his attention.

“I envisioned having diners all over Europe, and the first years after we became popular we got calls from all over Europe,” he said. “But, logically doing business in France took up so much time I couldn’t just run to Madrid and open up a new one.”

But now, Carlson is open to the idea of expansion in order to share America’s dining culture with the world. He encourages current USC students to take full advantage of the worldwide alumni association available to them and to study abroad for at least one semester.

“[Studying abroad] opens your mind to the world and is a great way of building perspective,” Carlson said. “It stays with you for the rest of your life.”

And of course, if you’re ever in Paris, stop by if you want a taste of America.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the diner opened in 2003, not 2002. It also incorrectly stated that Carlson found a diner, not a cafe, in the 5th arrondissement. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.