I was not born and raised in New Jersey, but I have lived here my entire adult life. Now and again in this periodic series of posts, I am going to highlight what makes New Jersey, well, New Jersey. And it does not mean having a Superfund site in your backyard, Tony Soprano as your next door neighbor, or reading in the newspaper that your town’s mayor is under indictment (although the last has happened to me – with two different mayors in the same town).
I though I’d start with the most unique piece of New Jersey – the diner.
Wait a second you say…aren’t there diners all over America? Yes, but nowhere are they as ubiquitous as in New Jersey. In all, there are about 3,000 diners in the USA. About 600 of them are in the Garden State. So our little state, with less than 3% of the population and 0.2% of the land, has 20% of the nation’s diners. We have one for every 13,500 people. For America as a whole, it’s 1 for every 100,000. Travel the major roads in New Jersey, and they seem to pop up every couple of miles. And they all seem busy. People go after church, young people go when they get late night munchies, geeky Jews go to them when they visit their parents in the Over 55-community (I’m not referring to anyone at DL, of course) and every type of worker from truckers to sales reps hit them for a large lunch or dinner at a not-so-large price. People frequent diners here in a way that they do not frequent the chains, and over time, develop great relationships with the owners and waitresses. They are a part of the fabric of life in NJ as they are nowhere else in America.
Now, what makes a diner different from Denny’s, IHOP, TGI Friday’s, Applebee’s and the like? Well, perhaps it’s wonderfully described in this link.
In addition to being independently owned, having the biggest freakin’ menus you’ll ever see (and amazingly similar from one diner to another), being open 24 hours, and serving larger portions at lower prices than the chains, there is one more important ingredient to a diner. It has to be owned and operated by an extended family descended from a certain Mediterranean country (care to take any guesses which one, Zorkie)?
Perhaps the most famous of all the NJ diners was Rosie’s Diner, which was used in the famous “Bounty�? towel commercials of the 1970s (“The Quicker Picker-Upper�?). When it was in Little Falls, New Jersey, it was actually called the Silver Dollar Diner.
Rosie's has since literally been picked up (oh yes, diners are usually prefabbed buildings) and moved to Michigan some years ago.
Another famous one is the REO Diner in Woodbridge:
From the REO, the (in)famous conservative talk show host Bob Grant used to broadcast (I saw him do the show once from there).
And if you watch the Food Network, you may have seen a couple of shows where Al Roker featured the largest of the state’s diners, the Mastoris in Bordentown. The original ‘50s style prefab diner building is in the center of the restaurant, and the Mastoris family expanded around it:
Finally, here is the Roadside Diner in Wall Township:
Note the ‘50s retro look of the Roadside. A lot of NJ diners have remodeled to this style in the last 15 years.
Near where my parents live, there are three diners within a 10-minute drive, and we almost always go to one of them to eat. And in case you’re all wondering -- no, I never complain that the food is cold and they should go back and “nuke�? it……
So next time you’re in New Jersey, instead of going out for a meal at International House of Denny’s or TGI Houlibees, check out a bit of real New Jersey and eat at the local diner. Here’s the comprehensive list for you.
Not only is it cheaper, you never know who might be in the booth next to you. Perhaps it will be some goodfellas “doing business�? with my mayor.