By, Pam Teel
Did you know that the first diner was a lunch wagon, developed by Walter Scott in 1872? Scott’s success serving customers where they gathered at late hours quickly inspired oth- ers to copy his efforts. An industry soon followed, building new lunch wagons as well as converting decommissioned horse drawn trolleys. Innovators added features for customer comfort, including room for the customer inside the lunch wagon as well as adding the stool, which is still a key feature in diners.
The classic American diner is a cultural icon. Today, most people associate the diner with its streamlined, silver bullet, art deco period or the chrome, checker board and vinyl glitz of its baby boom heyday. What began as a horse drawn lunch wagon evolved and is a continuing expression of the changing American culture.
The proliferation of lunch wagons prompted cities to regulate the hours and locations where they could operate. Owners skirted the rules by parking their lunch wagons in permanent locations. No longer concerned with going mobile, the owners began beautifying the out- sides to attract customers. Lunch wagon manufacturers followed suit and switched their products from wagons to prefabricated buildings.
The 1920s and 1930s added their art deco stamp to the classic American diner. Bold colors, geometric shapes, neon signs and stainless steel were standard motifs. Diners kept much of their look through the ’40s, but after WWII followed American culture to the suburbs. Diner manufacturers vied to capture the eye of passing motorists and their prefabs reflected America’s love of the automobile. The diner changed shapes again with the space race of the ’60s, adding rockets and fins to the decor.
If you grew up in New Jersey and never ate at a diner, then you must have had good reason. There are 566 municipalities in the state and, according to nj.com, at last count, some 525 diners. Those numbers make finding a diner in the Garden State easy work.
According to zagat.com, “In the state of New Jersey, diners are more than just a place to grab a breakfast sandwich or a late-night cup of coffee. Often the center of the community, din- ers built in the 1920’s are still beloved by their guests despite modern restaurants filling up Main Street.” Pete Genovese of nj.com identifies the Summit Diner as the oldest diner still in operation in the state, opening in 1929.
Here is a sampling of well-known diners — but the fun is in finding your own favorite spot: The Clinton Station Diner, in Clinton, is unlike any other you have ever seen. Sit down and observe the model trains go around suspended from the ceiling, or enjoy the unique fish tank. If you prefer a more quiet setting, sit in the dining room near the working fireplace. It’s also home of Mt. Olympus: The 50 lb burger and much more.
Bill’s Diner in Barnegat Light is a destination because of both its colorful owner, Bill Smith, and his signature dishes, such as homemade chipped beef and a Cyclops pancake with an egg in the middle.
The Tick Tock Diner, built in 1948 in Clifton, has been restored to its former art-deco glory and is a favorite spot for a late-night – or early morning – bite. As locals know, the hickory-smoked spareribs are a lip-smacking treat.
In Hightstown, the Hightstown Diner is a hot spot for breakfast — and no wonder, with menu items such as strawberry-banana waffles, homemade corned beef hash and a six-egg Greek omelet.
Speaking of Greek food, the Jefferson Diner in Lake Hopatcong is owned by the Seretis family, whose recipes include plenty of Greek dishes and a pop- ular lobster bisque and seafood al Greco.
If it’s a burger you crave, step back in time to the Hackensack-based White Manna Diner, which has been relatively unchanged for more than 60 years and serves 800 to 1,000 burgers a day.
Want to follow the local diner circuit, here are some ones close by home:
Clairmont Diner- Rte. 130 East Windsor, Americana Diner Rte. 130- East Windsor, Prestige Diner- Rte.33 -East Windsor, Gus’s Diner -Manalapan, All Seasons Diner #2- Freehold, Manalapan Diner- Rte. 9, Park Nine Diner- Freehold, Golden Diner -Hamilton, Hamilton family diner, Hightstown Diner, Jackson diner, Lakehurst diner, Broad Street Diner- Trenton, Town & Country diner- Bordentown, and Wisdom Diner – Bordentown, to name a few.
You can easily find a diner anywhere in the state by visiting www.njdiners.com.