Hot Meals, Cool Decor, and a Waitress Named Jeannie: New Jersey’s Classic Diners
(Original version; edited version published in 1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die, Workman Publishing, 2007)
The diner is probably the quintessential New Jersey icon, keeping the tradition of greasy burgers, any-hour breakfast, and home-baked pies alive in the face of McDonald’s über alles. First appearing on the scene as horse-drawn lunch wagons that made the rounds of factories in the 1870s, diners eventually grew roots in working-class neighborhoods nationwide. Soon after the turn of the century, companies started manufacturing them in prefabricated kits that could be shipped nationwide and set up in no time. In the thirties, you could pick your diner out of a catalog, send a check, and get the whole thing delivered to you — stools, stoves, dishes and all — in about three months.
Of the ten major diner manufacturers, six were based in New Jersey, making the state the unofficial diner capital of America. But what is it that makes a diner a diner, by which I mean a really classic diner? Opinions vary, but here’s a working definition: It should ideally be prefab; it should be long and narrow like a railroad dining car (after which they were originally patterned); it should have a counter with stools (with leatherette booths optional); it should serve comfort food, preferably 24 hours a day; and it should be old, with as much of its original décor intact as possible.
The industrial areas of northern New Jersey, beginning just west of lower Manhattan and Staten Island and spreading inland for about ten miles, are a diner lover’s mecca. Begin at the White Mana in Jersey City, which began life at the 1939 World’s Fair and claims to be the original fast-food restaurant. It’s round, with a circular counter and tile floor, and serves legendarily greasy burgers. A second White Manna — this one squarishly shaped and retaining the old chain’s original spelling — survives to the north in Hackensack, with room for a dozen or so patrons at its horseshoe counter.
Not far from Manna and flanked by highways on all sides, the Bendix Diner dates from 1947 and is a regular stop for Jerseyites returning from Manhattan after a night out. A steel rectangle with a fantastic neon sign, it’s essentially unchanged since the day it opened. The same can’t be said for the nearby Tick Tock Diner, which is regularly named as Jersey’s best although some years ago its original 1949 exterior was covered in ugly chrome. The huge menu remains, though, as does the clock on the roof, surrounded by the diner’s classic motto: “Eat Heavy.”
To the south, in East Orange, the Harris Diner represents the move into the 1950s. A large, double-size diner manufactured by Jerry O'Mahony, Inc., of Elizabeth, NJ, it wins plaudits for its original steel-and-chrome exterior, its food, its booths with their individual juke boxes, and its old-school diner waitresses. Another O’Mahony diner — this one a 1927 model (earning it the “oldest in Jersey” award) — lives on as Max's Grill in Harrison, to the east. A serious time-warp, it’s train-car shaped, with a fireplug-red exterior, barrel-shaped roof, and classic diner sign out front. Though it changed hands from its original owner a few years back, it retains its classic diner appeal.
Back in Jersey City, the Miss America Diner is another 50’s-era chrome-and-steel classic with a block-lettered neon sign on top and good, solid food within. For a last treat on your tour, head inland about fifteen miles to the Summit Diner, built in 1938 in its namesake town and sporting an interior straight out of a Frank Capra movie. It’s got a railroad-car exterior, deco lettering, and a wood-paneled interior with booths on one side and a long counter on the other. It’s no great stretch to imagine some east-coast Tom Joad sitting here during the Depression, having donuts and coffee before hopping a freighter west.