New Jersey is the diner capital of the world. It boasts an estimated 400 diners spread out across the landscape, and there are several reasons for this. Much of the Garden State remains semi-rural or suburban where the food runs more traditional. Perhaps more important, running from the 1920s to the 1980s, the state was the site of at least a dozen factories that manufactured as many as one third of the nation’s prefab diners, which could be shipped and set down any place.
The Jersey companies included O’Mahony (Bayonne and Elizabeth), Kullman (Newark), Fodero (Bloomfield), Silk City (Paterson), Paramount (Oakland), Swingle (Middlesex), Master (Pequannock), Mountain View (Singac), Campora (Kearny), Musi (Carteret), Comac (Irvington), and Erfed (Rutherford).
The earliest resembled the railroad dining cars they descended from, often with art deco elements. Later, diners became larger and more opulent, inspired more by contemporary automobile design. The oldest diners in the state — places like Dumont Crystal Diner (1925) in Dumont and Summit Diner (1929) in Summit — have persisted because they exist in small towns where they remain a treasured and useful part of the community and are less threatened by real estate interests.
The earliest Jersey diners had limited menus of what were considered standard dishes aimed at working people and travelers, including such things as egg breakfasts, pancakes, burgers, soups, and pies, while later diners incorporated Italian, Southern, Yankee, Mexican, and Greek elements — the latter added as Greek immigrants began to take over old diners and create new ones in the ’40s and ’50s.
When we set out on a recent Saturday to do a diner pilgrimage, we wanted to go to the oldest ones. The sky was cloudy with intermittent bursts of heavy rain as we set out for Jersey City’s West Side. In the not-yet-gentrified neighborhood right across the street from the Social Security office and across the Hackensack River from Newark, stands Miss America diner surrounded by parking lots.
Built by the O’Mahony company of Elizabeth, the diner dates to 1940, but the current structure was installed in 1958, and has had a succession of Greek owners. Like other diners made by the same company, this one is long and nearly all metal, with an added dining room on the end that dates to the 90s. We were seated at a sunny booth by the window, and resolved to order pancakes, at least, at each diner we went to that day. We got the short stack, with Taylor ham – the national meat of Jersey, something like a fine-grained spam – as a side. The pancakes were a bit on the rubbery side, and the butter wasn’t butter, but they were pretty good in the way pancakes always are.
We couldn’t resist ordering something called the happy waitress, which turned out to be tomato and bacon on slices of white bread with American cheese annealed to the top. Once in a lifetime was enough for that dish. The best thing we had was corned beef hash, which had been made on the premises. It was more pureed than most, but shreds of pink meat were still visible.
Hopping in the car we were on our way through Sopranos country, a land of flaking iron bridges, abandoned warehouses, and teetering wooden houses. But hopping on the freeway, we were soon in Summit, a bedroom community built on a series of hills with sizable brick houses on carefully manicured grounds, and a main street preserved to induce nostalgia.
We gasped when we rounded the corner and spotted Summit Diner, because it really did look like a railroad car parked smack dab in the middle of downtown. Indeed, the place opened in 1929 or 1938, depending on who you believe. (We were to find that all dates are approximate or estimated where diners are concerned.)
Once again, this diner was the work of the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company, operating under an earlier aesthetic than the Miss America Diner. This earlier place was far more cramped with only six tables and a lunch counter made of actual black marble. There was no printed menu, but a series of tack boards with moveable letters overhead. Nevertheless, there were some outliers on the menu that included clam chowder and biscuits and gravy, suggesting the menu had evolved over the years.
We ordered the pancakes with sausages, and the fat sage-y links were fantastic (the pancakes weren’t, though perfectly acceptable, and the butter was butter). The beef in the Philly cheesesteak was tough, and the onions and green peppers still crunchy, but the classic Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich was near perfection, though a Twitter follower claimed, “not sloppy enough.” A cup of pleasantly understated Manhattan clam chowder came free with the cheesesteak.
Next stop, we ended up accidently diverted to Bayonne before correctly following the complicated route to Hasbrouck Heights, a short distance from Teterboro Airport in a blighted industrial wasteland. Our objective was Bendix Diner, built by the Master Diner Company of Pequannock, and opened in 1947. The diner is constructed of stainless steel and has been featured in six movies and numerous TV commercials, including one starring Ray Charles.
It sits in a triangular parking lot penned in with idle trucks, and a neon coffee cup sits on the top with the modest boast, “Good Coffee.” Once inside we sat at a window seat and ordered the usual short stack, which came with real butter, tasted of buttermilk, and were fluffier than the previous examples we’d tried. The patty melt was nothing short of miraculous, with good ground beef cooked to medium over flame, and tasting smoky, along with caramelized onions on rye toast that had been buttered before grilling. The accompanying crinkle-cuts were killer. The homemade hash was good too, but not quite up to Miss America’s.
All-in-all the food at Bendix was a notch above the other two diners; indeed, it was better than most of the NYC diners. Our waiter was blind, and he turned out to be the owner, whose three sons and mother are also involved in the operation. The story has been told elsewhere, but this diner was a great final stop, and as we drove back through the waving grasses of the Meadowlands, we felt like we’d found further proof of the dominance of New Jersey diners and grateful for the pleasure they’d given us on a glum day.