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One for the Road: Ode to the diner

By Shadow

Early one morning, as I crested a hill in the northern part of New Jersey, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a diner I’d passed dozens of times. I’d never had occasion to stop there, but this morning my rumbling stomach pulled me into this place of perpetual breakfasts. The ’50s railroad-car style structure with its shiny stainless-steel exterior beckoned, promising me a hearty meal befitting New Jersey’s designation as Diner Capital of the World.

Picking a table and settling in after the waitress called from behind the counter, “Sit anywhere!” I opened the voluminous menu and studied each page, trying to decide whether an egg dish or chocolate chip pancakes would be more satisfying. I chose the former. When the huge platter was delivered to my table, I dug in.

The eggs Benedict was awful. The fake, strangely-flavored Hollandaise should have been declared a crime against humanity. The home fries were limp and tasteless, and the orange juice was some sort of weird unidentifiable liquid. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. I found myself wishing I’d stopped at any one of the other diners I’d passed on the way.

I’ve had plenty of bad restaurant meals in my travels, so why the fierce reaction? Well, New Jersey has been my home for nearly 25 years, and I’ve become proud of the many titles it holds, like the Garden State (our state slogan) and the Pathway of the Revolution (many Revolutionary War battles were fought here). The Mosquito Capital of the World? Not so much, but the Diner Capital of the World is, to me, a fine distinction. There are more diners in this state than anywhere else, and it just seems that this one bad diner is an insult to the other 600 or so in New Jersey.

The first diners appeared in the early 20th century and were horse-drawn wagons repurposed into cars that served simple foods to people late at night. In 1913, Jerry O’Mahoney invented the first stationary diner, eventually shipping 6,000 diners all over the country from his manufacturing plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. There’s an entire subculture of diner aficionados that delight in diner hunting and identification of manufacturing origins, styles and other historical factoids. In fact, the diner is deemed such a significant part of New Jersey culture that, in 2016, one of the state’s county museums mounted an exhibit on the diner and its legacy.

Diners began permeating the public consciousness after World War I, gaining even more popularity in the Depression-era due to their low-cost menus. After World War II, manufacturers, and then owners, started jazzing them up with Formica countertops, leather booths, and stainless-steel exteriors, a look that today is reflected in both Art Deco and ’50s design and décor, both of which invoke nostalgia as well as a sense of subliminal comfort.

An important part of pop culture, diners began to proliferate as settings for movies (e.g., Pulp Fiction and When Harry Met Sally), television shows like the ’80s Flo, the wisecracking, gum-chewing waitress with the bouffant hairdo. Countless Seinfeld scenes took place in a diner, as did the series finale of The Sopranos. Alton Brown rode his motorcycle through two delightful seasons of Food Network’s Feasting on Asphalt, and Guy Fieri, who rides a Desperado motorcycle, still entertains us with his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, now 28 seasons strong.

It’s my belief that chain restaurants like Denny’s or IHOPS shouldn’t be called diners. Although these places can appear to serve the same purpose, they generally don’t have the hometown ambience, unique personalities (both buildings and people), and pride in their expansive menus. And chances are, in your favorite diner there’s no standard uniform, waitstaff being more concerned with their own comfort than impressing customers.

I’ve written about diners before, but I can’t emphasize enough the impact to our riding community. They serve as meet spots, and even more importantly, havens of (hopefully) homemade comfort food while on the road. Many diners are open late or even all night, and a cup of coffee and huge slice of pie can be a life saver for those of us who choose to push on well past normal human limitations. But more importantly, diners are much more conducive to striking up conversations with strangers, especially if you’re sitting at the counter.

It’s at diners and luncheonettes where we learn about traffic conditions, road construction, weather patterns, fuel availability, places to stay and other such travel concerns. When riding solo, I often get lots of questions from locals (“Where are you doing? Where did you come from? How far did you ride today?” and the like). And I get to find out interesting stuff about the town and its residents. Some of my most enjoyable conversations have been held at these off-the-beaten-path oases, and I’ve formed some real and lasting friendships from chance encounters.

So to celebrate this slice of Americana, THUNDER PRESS is starting a new feature called “Diner Dash,” inspired by contributor Amy White who contributed this issue’s “The Folded Map.” I’m kicking it off with, appropriately, a Jersey diner… one that’s down the shore. And we’d like to know about your favorite diner or luncheonette. Send in a high-resolution photo and a 120-word description along with the place’s address and contact info, and you might see your favorite eating spot featured in a future issue of THUNDER PRESS!

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