New Jersey’s Cultural Zenith: The Diner

Ahh, New Jersey.  Home to the infamous diner, the cultural heart of my home state.

You can go anywhere else in the United States, and they don’t understand how to DO a diner like New Jersey.  I would bet we have more diners in New Jersey than any other state.

I love diners. I love everything about them – chrome exteriors, kitchy interior designs, 24 hour a day service, and the familiar characters you can expect to see when you visit an authentic New Jersey diner.

Greek History

Diners are frequently owned by Greek families.  This is why so many diners sport names like The Athena, Zeus, or Mount Olympia Diner.  I was introduced to Spanikopita and Moussaka dinner specials at “the diner.”

If you are in a diner called “The Plaza,” or “The Galaxy” you might not know if you are in a Greek owned diner or not, but the signals are there if you look for them.  If the owner frequently gesticulates with both hands, and yells at the staff in what-sounds-like-Greek (although everyone on the staff will swear he is not yelling) then you can rest easy you have found the real thing.

Two Eggs Any Style

All diners have a 24 hour a day breakfast menu. The very first thing on that page of the menu is Two Eggs Any Style ( TEAS).  TEAS comes with two pieces of buttered toast (white, wheat or rye) and home fries.  Any style means just that: scrambled, runny, sunny side up, over easy, over medium or over hard.

TEAS and all of the menu items will be cooked to order by your invisible Mexican, Dominican, (or other Spanish) kitchen staff.  You will never see them or meet them, but they are in there making the magic happen.  If you walk to the back of the diner and see some guys hanging out smoking a cigarette, you found them.

The Jersey Waitress, a breed apart

Diners also come with a friendly bunch of gum chewing Jersey waitresses.  These ladies are the roughest, toughest bunch you’ll find and they don’t suffer fools.  Many of them are adorned with a variety of tattoos, and you can sometimes count the number of piercings on both hands. 

These gals are extremely hard working and they rely on their tips to pay the bills.  They want to take your order, get your food to you quickly, refill your coffee or soda glass once and get you the bill. 

Do NOT linger at a diner table unless you are prepared to leave an ample tip!  These girls wouldn’t hesitate to cut you in the parking lot if you sit at their booth for two hours and leave a three buck tip.

To a Jersey waitress, everyone (male or female) is named honey, as in “What can I get you honey?”

Am I a “regular?”

You qualify for “regular” status at a Jersey diner if you eat at one particular place very often… let’s say at least once every two weeks or more.  You may also qualify as a sometime-regular if it’s a diner you used to visit often, but now only go several times a year.  As long as the owner and the waitresses who have been working there a long time still recognize you, you have maintained your sometime-regular status.

Being a regular has its advantages.  For example, if a regular comes and sits at the counter and sees a waitress he knows, she might turn to him and say, “the usual honey?” If he says yes, he will get a plate of whatever it is he always orders quickly and efficiently.

Forbidden Things to Never Eat at the Diner

If you know what’s good for you, you will never, EVER eat these things at the diner:

  • Surf and Turf – that lobster hasn’t seen water for a long time, and the steak will be grey, and covered with canned “gravy”
  • Sushi – this needs no explanation
  • Fruit salad – (exception: if you like canned marischino cherries in heavy syrup, go ahead)

Helpful Tips to tell if your New Jersey Diner is authentic

***   NO!   ***

  1. None of the waitresses chew gum or have tats. You overhear them say Please or Thank You.

  2. Looks “too clean;” no juke-boxes bolted to the tables; no spinning dessert cart

  3. No one is wearing a tee shirt or flip flops; patrons have all their teeth

  4. Waitress doesn’t understand the following: “I’ll have two over easy with white – OR – I’ll have the Alpine Deluxe, medium.”

  5. You wait more than 10 minutes for your food.

  6. Menu includes truffle oil, organic free range anything or Croque Monsieur.

***   YES!   ***

  1. Menu is at least 8 pages long.
  2. Dinner special: Spanikopita with a Greek salad and Jello or Rice Pudding for dessert.
  3. The waitress sees you and says, “Hi Honey, meet you at the counter. You want the usual?”
  4. Serves 12+ kinds of burgers with at least some the following names: Cheese Burger, Pizza Burger, Alpine Burger, California Burger. Of course all of these can be “deluxed.”
  5. License plates in the parking lot are 75% New Jersey, 20% New York, and 5% Other
  6. Offers milkshakes OR egg creams
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3 Responses

  1. Good ‘No!’ and ‘Yes!’ Lists. I am a regular at a diner in NYC. Sometimes I cheat on them. Luckily they live far apart 🙂

    • I go to a few diners in NJ so often that I’m a “sometime-regular” in them. They don’t see me every other week, but I’m there enough during the year that they recognize my face and know I tip well. 🙂

  2. […] Lest anyone think that only NYC gets my attentions, I also took a few jabs at my home state of New Jersey, with New Jersey’s Cultural Zenith – The Diner. […]

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