Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Diners of New Jersey

For several years now, I have lived in New Jersey.  Like all states, Jersey has its little quirks.

The Jersey quirk that puzzles me most is the food service phenomenon know as the diner.

New Jersey Diners

New Jersey diners are restaurants that serve inexpensive meals -- breakfast and lunch, usually dinner. A few are open 24 hours a day.  Diners are not pretentious places.  Their menus never change and consist of basic grub, nothing special.  

Traditional Jersey diners look like this one, which is not far from my home.  It's pleasant and efficiently run.  Nobody gets in your face before you've had your coffee. I used to hang out there and eat pancakes when the million-woman cleaning squad invaded the house at 7:30 a.m. every few weeks or so.  

The diner is a second home to many regulars who stop by just about every day. The Significant Other and the younger person still travel there occasionally for Saturday lunch.  

Apparently a number of similar-looking New Jersey diners have been dismantled, boxed up and sent to Europe, particularly France.  (Sort of like the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, which was shipped to New York and reassembled in its own annex of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)  Apparently the French really dig the diner aesthetic.

In fact, the look of New Jersey diners has been updated over time.  Now most diners seem to have white-rock exterior walls and metal roofs like the one in the picture below.  

It's not a particularly stylish look, but its ubiquity may serve to signal to drivers that, hey, here is a diner in case you want a slice of pie and a cup of coffee.  Whatever.  I'm pretty sure no restaurants of this design will be popping up soon in the 16th Arrondissement.

Diner Lore

Many people in Jersey love diners and have fond memories of diner experiences.  More than a few homages, picture books and histories of Jersey diners have been published and apparently have sold well. 

I read an interview recently on the publication of the latest of these books.  Here is some of what the author said.  

     "Me and my buddies would go to the Tick Tock (Diner) and play the juke box. 
     These are very little, mundane things, but looking back, those are the things 
      that really stick with you. You’ll remember that—those are the things that really 
      keep you going sometimes, when you need a nice thought . . .
           "The old owner, Nick, (of the Tick Tock), I think that’s what he meant when 
      he would tell people that, like, ‘Okay, you’re at a diner, 20 years from now 
      you’re going to remember these days, these friends, these conversations,’ 
      and it means a lot. A diner’s got a good place for that in people’s hearts. 
            "It is kind of a Jersey thing. When you go out of this area, and I talk about 
      that, we got the population density and the road density, but you get out of 
      Pennsylvania and Maryland, you don’t find diners. It’s not part of that culture, 
      we grew up here, and this is our culture." 

So maybe that is it.  Diners are good gathering places for young people who have big appetites and small budgets, and who are too young to meet in bars.  Diners also may be good spots for local business people who want to meet and talk without being shushed by all the loners concentrating for hours on their screens at Starbucks. 

I fall into neither of these categories.  That may be one reason why the charm of diners has eluded me.

And there is another reason.

Diner Food

Except for pancakes smothered in syrup -- which I shouldn't be eating anyway -- nothing I have eaten in a diner has made me want to return.  This includes Greek salad (a not especially Greek staple of diner menus), sandwiches, burger baskets, dinner entrees and, quite often, the coffee.  All very unfortunate.

Several years ago, I swore off eating in diners.  I'm a terrible cook and nobody's idea of a gourmet, but at some point you have draw a line in the sand.  That was mine.  

(This can be difficult when traveling back from the West Coast.  Planes often arrive at 9 p.m. or so, and by the time the SO and I get home, the sidewalks have been rolled up and the only eatery still open is a diner in the next town over.  I have learned to store leftovers in the freezer for these moments.)  

So I was surprised this fall when New Jersey's major newspapers launched a joint project to find the best darn diner in the state.  

To me, this seems like trying to find the street fair with the best funnel cakes.  

For two weeks, readers were invited to nominate and vote for their favorite diners.  People LOVED it.  More than 42,000 voted in Northern Jersey alone.  

Now the papers' staffs will establish a list of 40 semi-finalists.  After judges sample the cuisine and atmosphere at all of them, the list will be winnowed to a lesser number of finalists and finally -- tadaa! -- there will be the naming of the finest diner in the Garden State.  

Good for those newspapers.  It is always heartening to see people take an interest in local publications. 

As for me, well, no.  It's a Jersey thing.  I just don't get it.

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