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A collage showing a diner kitchen and a stack of pancakes with syrup and butter.

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The Formica Wonderland of the Jersey Shore

More than just summertime spots for tourists, Jersey Shore diners go strong year-round

Jersey Shore diners are a wonderland of their own.
| Lille Allen/Eater
Melissa McCart is the editor for Eater New York.

No matter the season, diners are a staple of shore towns. Just about every East Coast beach community has at least one, stretching from the Floridian way down South, open since 1937 in Fort Lauderdale, all the way up to the 1940s-era Maine Diner near Kennebunk. It’s an inexpensive way to feed a family on vacation, particularly back when going to the closest beach was the summer family trip. And in the days when beachfront real estate wasn’t so expensive, running a diner was a realistic way to make a living, especially for immigrants. Even as it becomes more difficult to profit from independent restaurants, diners remain viable businesses in New Jersey in general and along the Jersey Shore in particular.

There are allegedly more than 400 diners in New Jersey — the most in any state, according to various counts, in part because it’s the land of commuters headed to NYC or Philadelphia, with its complex network of highways. It’s also where early diners were built, in factories such as the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company, which opened in 1917 and closed in 1952, or Silk City Diners, which closed in the mid-1960s.

It’s the type of culture that attracts loyal fans. One couple, Hillsdale residents Jon and Karri Ricklin, is on a quest to hit up all of the diners in New Jersey, having visited 199 since 2015, according to a recent profile in the Asbury Park Press. Of their visits to Shore diners, “we have been to about 25 total or so in Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May Counties, some coastal, some inland,” Jon Ricklin tells Eater over Facebook Messenger. With the exception of shoreside diners saying “pork roll,” for what North Jersey calls Taylor ham, “the food isn’t much different, though the ones in those actual beach communities made us feel like we were eating breakfast at a vacation destination ... which we actually were!!”

The outside of a diner by a lake.
The exterior of Sunset Landing in Asbury Park.

Like islands in an archipelago, dozens of diners dot the Jersey Shore from Sea Bright to Sea Girt, from a stone’s throw from the water to a few miles’ drive away. And while some seem like they’ve always been here, somehow, new ones manage to keep opening.

In Wall Township, New Jersey, not far from Belmar and Spring Lake, a breakfast place announces on a sign out front that it’s opening soon. It will reside in a one-story house on Route 33. Across the highway, Roadside Diner has perched in a diner car for decades. Inside, checkered tile lines the floor, vinyl-covered stools stand in a row behind the counter, across from booths that seem small by today’s standards. Near the grill, vintage tins of saltines sit above shelves of glasses. Artificial plants hang from a beam, and a drawing of the Golden Gate Bridge hangs across the center of the counter. Roadside’s claim to fame was its cameo in a Springsteen video. Demetris Gerakaris, the owner and cook, moved to the U.S. from Greece in the late 1970s, worked at diners when he arrived, and eventually bought his own.

“Everybody knows everybody here,” Gerakaris says in an interview with the National Herald, a Greek American community paper. “Everybody is friends.”

With its rotary phone and AM radio, it’s way more old-school than JB’s Route 33 Diner in Farmingdale, which beckons with tuna melts, burgers, and specials named for a Camaro (sausage gravy over a biscuit, coffee, and juice), an Impala (eggs Benedict, home fries, coffee, and juice), and a handful of other vintage cars. JB’s has been open less than a decade, according to a manager, and feels more like diner simulacra, with its rockabilly sensibility and high school-aged workers. Mondays are vintage car nights in the parking lot, one of many from here to Asbury, which has its own vintage car event near the beach on Thursdays. Either way, between the decor, the vibe, and the rev of engines, it’s an homage to the past.

The exterior of a diner in Wall Township, NJ.
The exterior of Roadside Diner in Wall Township.
The inside of a Jersey Shore diner.
The interior of Roadside Diner in Wall.
The exterior of a shiny diner.
The outside of JB’s Route 33 Diner.

Over in Asbury Park, Sunset Landing, tucked in a residential neighborhood five blocks from the Atlantic, doesn’t look like your typical diner. Instead, picture a low-slung cabin from the late 1800s, its name painted in red blocky letters on a weathered sign. Inside, it reads like an eclectic surf lodge with surfboards atop rafters, an ATM near the door, and paintings for sale in the corner that nod to Hawai‘i. Donna Logdon inherited Sunset Landing from her father, who bought it in the 1960s. She and her husband Rob Pruszynski have been running the place for decades, though recently they sold it for more than $1.1 million and closed it the last weekend of May.

Like dozens of diner owners in the region who have decided to call it quits following the onset of the pandemic, the owners of Sunset Landing, in their 60s, wanted to retire. But rather than citing the decline of diner popularity, it’s New Jersey taxes that are the biggest burden: The weight of taxes on the building and their home on the block, they say, makes it too hard to stay afloat. The combined costs are on par or slightly more expensive than Hawai’i.

It’s a different scenario than when Logdon’s family bought the place. Back before high schools merged into regional schools, she says, her father kept Sunset Landing open as an after-school spot for kids who’d come for snacks or late lunches and water skiing on the lake. “It used to be like Happy Days,” she says. Logdon worked there every week starting at 11 years old up through undergraduate school. The family’s labor was so essential that she says she missed both her high school and college graduations because she had to work. When she’d had enough, she told her father she was going to Hawai‘i for a year off. Then she ended up meeting Rob, with whom she lived in Maui for five years, then headed back to Jersey to run the restaurant, until now.

Closer to the boardwalk, the Diner at Asbury Lanes — a newish diner circa 2018 attached to the bowling alley that doubles as a performance space connected to the Asbury Hotel — is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. It’s bright and shiny inside, with the chrome accents still gleaming. Instead of standard griddle burgers, they’re made from wagyu. There’s a boozy milkshake of the week. And while the prices aren’t diner-cheap like at Roadside, at night it can feel like it’s in the center of things, where you can hear pins fall from the impact of a bowling ball as you sip a lager, or catch a glimpse of a band through the window to the stage behind the counter.

The outside of the Diner at Asbury Lanes at night.
The exterior of the Diner at Asbury Lanes.

While the Diner at Asbury Lanes is, let’s face it, corporate, it still serves the same purpose as one that’s been around for years. Sure, that can translate to serving up satisfying, inexpensive meals, just about any time of day, in a room that nods to nostalgia. It’s also a very American place where people go to connect with their neighbors or those who might be just passing through.

“I just unpacked my apartment and I need a burger,” a woman announced as she breezed in through the door one Sunday night and grabbed the first seat at the counter. She recently left her husband in Virginia and was starting fresh at the Shore, not too far from her kids in college.

Even though it was a hotel diner as opposed to a longtime spot like Roadside, Sunset Landing, or even JB’s, everyone knew their roles. The server put a glass in front of her, and the few evening patrons put down their forks to listen.