Most states pride themselves on their unique cooking styles or signature dishes, while my state raves on about 24-hour eateries serving up comfort. It's true though- nothing compares to New Jersey diner culture.
For those of you not blessed with an abundance of diners, let me explain. Diners have all-day breakfast, an extensive menu, and late-night hours. There's no dress code and no judgment on whether you eat pancakes for dinner or cake for breakfast. It's hard to find something wrong with these relaxed restaurants. They're just plain ordinary.
Noticing a diamond in the rough seems like an easy task, but it takes a lot of digging to reach the prize. So when pondering why I loved diners so much, I struggled to find words. Even now, as I write this piece, my effort to explain how spectacular an underwhelming eatery really is seems to be lacking. I found myself having to return to a local diner in an attempt to get nitpicky with the details. Here's what I found:
It wasn't until I left New Jersey that I realize how much I relied on diners. They were my go-to eating spot for dates and catch-ups with friends. If there was nothing to do, there was always a diner. I came to know each menu so well, I wouldn't even have to look at it to know what I was going to order.
More importantly, it wasn't until I left New Jersey that I noticed the magic in the ordinary. The neon lights advertising coffee were no longer a tacky accessory, but a welcome home sign. The antiquated, flower-covered booths were no longer an eyesore, but a throne. My favorite (and least favorite) waiters/waitresses were no longer just an aspect of the restaurant, but friends (and frenemies).
The chimes of the front door opening gives you rush of contemptment that is unexplainable. You know that you can order anything from anywhere and it will be good, but you also know that some places do certain things better. Despite that, New Jersey, diners are consistent; you're always within 10 minutes of one. So no matter how far you drive, you'll never be too far away from home.
To say the least, I do have some favorites. The only diner I ordered French toast from is the Caldwell Diner, who serves up thick, crispy slices of challah bread dusted with powdered sugar. Everywhere else, just not as good; and that makes all the difference. This one dish put this diner on the top of my list. While most people would think my snobbery is unnecessary and I should just enjoy the food, they've clearly never been given a thinly sliced, out of place piece of honeydew with their nutella and banana french toast (that was very subpar itself).
The Ritz Diner is another favorite of mine (and of Guy Fieri as well). It's the epitome of New Jersey diners, from the brightly colored walls to the pastry-packed display cases. Their chocolate babka and apple pie is award winning, and their ever-crowded parking lot is proof they remain high in more hearts than my own.
Throughout my 20 years in this lovely state, I have seen some diners crumble under the pressure of trendy pop-ups. Some get complete make overs, leaving the interior unrecognizable, and killing the quintessential diner atmosphere. Others undertake new ownership, changing the whole game of a place that has been with it's community for decades. Only those who remain true to the traditional diner aesthetic are the ones who remain prominent on my list.
Those who fall remain few, and classic diner culture in New Jersey persists. Generations of New Jerseyans will be able to utilize these restaurants as their havens, as I and those before me have as well. It's where you find disco fries, taylor ham, and straight up comfort. Diners are nothing special, but that's what makes them mean so much to so many people.
And that's the secret about New Jersey diners. Sure, they exist all over the country; they're an American classic after all. They all have similar menus and similar booths and similar signage. But for us, these ordinary quirks and mundane details are the pinnacle of the diner experience. A diner means everything to us, and the loyal customers of New Jersey mean everything to them. After all, they don't put a "home" in homefries for nothing.