For the month of April, SAVEUR is all about New Jersey, the unsung hero state of American eating. Here's why. Read all our Jersey Month stories here.
Diners in New Jersey aren't just another place to eat. They're neighborhood staples ingrained in the state's identity—there's even a museum exhibit celebrating them. New Jersey, sometimes called the "diner capital of the world", has around 600 diners, and some have been maintained to look almost exactly as they first appeared in the 1920's and 1930's. According to Preservation New Jersey, "The popularity of diners skyrocketed after World War II as a result of readily available, cheap, innovative materials, coupled with a growing base of increasingly mobile patrons with sufficient finances to dine out regularly."
The diner's iconic design exterior is also steeped in Jersey tradition. New Jersey was a top manufacturer of prefabricated diners, with more than 20 manufacturers including the Paterson Vehicle Company, the Jerry O'Mahony Diner Company, and the Kullman Diner Car Company. When picturing diners, the rectangular shape, complete with "decorative patterned stainless steel, colorful neon, and creative signage," comes to mind immediately.
To get a sense of what these establishments are like today, we sifted through lists of awesome places to settle on the following four. They each have their own place in Jersey diner history, and they represent some very different—but still very typical—diner designs. Read on for their stories.
Tony Margetis knows that anything can happen at the diner. "Forget about it, we write the books, whatever you see on TV, they do stories and sitcoms and we do the real thing." Entertainment mirrors real life when it comes to the turnover rate: "Most of the waitresses get married to rich guys. You see that on TV only, right? Here it happens all the time. Guys walk in with flowers and limos and they see our waitresses and then they get married, and I have to look for a new waitress."
The Miss America Diner celebrated its 75th anniversary last spring. The current building was built on the same site as the original (but a few feet behind it), and to increase seating, it was expanded in the 1990's.
Margetis' diner has two main specialties: "Soup, coffee. Gotta have good soup and good coffee."
Miss America Diner
322 West Side Ave, Jersey City
If you're a Sopranos fan, you might have seen the VIP Diner before. Remember the episode where Julianna has a flashback that brings her to a car in a diner parking lot? That was Jersey City's VIP Diner. Built in 1974, it was almost lost to a Walgreens in 2010, but for now, it remains a neighborhood favorite.
This diner doesn't use microwaves, and owner Michael Pagonas prides himself in the diner's high-quality, freshly-cooked meals. Diners, he said, are "the only popular places excluding fancy restaurants that still cook the old fashioned way." Pagonas would know. He has been in the diner business for 40 years, and he has worked through every position. "Well, when I jumped off a boat 45 years ago, all my Greek colleagues were in business there, so I started as a busboy, then a dishwasher, then a waiter, then a cook, then I owned my own place."
175 Sip Ave, Jersey City
Many people may have heard about the White Mana Diner's sliders: a thin strip of beef topped with onions and pickles, so named because of how they're cooked (the patty starts on the left side of the grill, then is moved to the middle where it is kept warm until one is needed, when they're moved to the right side, sliding across the grill). But the diner is much more than just sliders.
If you ask the White Mana's owner, Mario Costa, about the diner's background, be prepared for a lot of history. The original owner, Louis Bridges, opened the Jersey City location in time for the 1939 World's Fair, and Costa said, "This was an introduction to fast food. The diner was completely circular, and they all were round. It was a display of the world of tomorrow." Why was it called fast food? "The cook didn’t have to take more than three steps. You cook the food and hand it to the customer in three steps." The diner closed when World War II began, and it opened again in 1945. Costa bought it with money he had originally saved to go to law school. He got it from Louis Bridges' brother, Lester, who believed the diner would become obsolete as fast food giants like Burger King began to gain footing. But as Costa says, "I knew the customers. I stayed, and I'm still there."
His customers are equally loyal. One of them was Tony DiGilio, brother of infamous New Jersey mob boss John DiGilio. "Tony wound up having stomach cancer, but he came to the diner almost every day. He'd get either a cheeseburger or a cheesesteak with Wonder bread." But even after Tony stopped coming to the diner, his kids would still come, ordering the same cheesesteak their father loved. Costa thought this was a bit strange—the kids would say he's sick, yet he was still eating the cheesesteaks? It turned out that Tony's kids ordered the food to bring to their father. "He couldn't eat, but he wanted to smell the food."
White Mana Diner
470 Tonnele Ave, Jersey City
Summit Diner owner Jim Greberis probably takes the cake for the strangest diner experience. "I had a man pass away at the table. He finished his meal and was just sitting there. We had him checked out, it wasn't from the food," he said. He has been at the diner for 36 years, and as he puts it, "My diner has not changed one bit."
At the Summit Diner, you can sit in the same red leatherette booths that customers used in 1929, when the diner opened. The decorated exterior chrome has also stayed the same. Greberis refurbished it about three years ago, which was "kind of mandatory," but Greberis said, "It's almost like it was in 1939, with the original counters with black marble, real mahogany, the windows haven't changed. I'm hoping nobody breaks any, I have no idea how we'd change them."
Because he's been at the diner for so long, Greberis has witnessed how customers change from one year to the next. "Summit used to be big in the stock market. Summit used to run New York City," said Greberis. "They would have a lot of limos lined up for two blocks, then after a couple crashes, the line got smaller and smaller. Then they made midtown direct, and there were no more limos because everybody hops on the train." Now, Greberis gets a mix of "average Joes" and big names, including Phil Simms and Jim Cramer.
1 Union Pl, Summit