Diving into Diners

  • By Jeremy Rubel '15
  • jrubel15@amherst.edu

Volume XXXVI, Issue 1, October 4, 2013

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Diners comfort me. Thick menus. Breakfast food. “Luncheon Specials.” Heavy dinners. Multiple-choice meals that can be mixed and matched while sitting in a stuffed, plush booth. Kitschy faux silver boxes built from aluminum and manned by old-time waitresses who seem to enjoy the food just a little too much. If I’m lucky, there’s even a jukebox in the corner. Diners are the answer to the eternal Waffle House vs. IHOP debate. Just go to the diner instead.

 When I was younger, as a special treat, my dad used to take me to the diner on Sunday mornings. Much to his frustration, I always ordered a large chocolate chip pancake stack decorated with a whipped cream face. Later on in high school, my friends and I used to go to the 24-hour diner whenever we didn’t have anything to do. And in the suburbs we never had anything to do. So at 11 p.m. on Saturdays, we would pile into the biggest available car and drive to the gleam of Sherwood. We would speak over one another and tell jokes that only our group would understand. The waitresses hated us. We often took hours to eat our fare and left tips that rounded down to the penny. In my town, the diner was the place to be.

 This past summer I lived and worked in Morris County, New Jersey. At first, I had serious worries about the Jersey Shore, the excessive fist pumping, and the big hair. But when I moved in, I saw an affluent suburban community and an area that many of my classmates call home.

 This past summer I lived and worked in Morris County, New Jersey. At first, I had serious worries about the Jersey Shore, the excessive fist pumping, and the big hair. But when I moved in, I saw an affluent suburban community and an area that many of my classmates call home.

 I set out to explore my new temporary neighborhood. Often a little self-indulgent, I like to embark on grand projects of “self-improvement.” New Jersey is the birthplace of the diner and has more diners than any other state. So, with too much time on my hands, a complete inability to cook, and an unwillingness to spend my hard-earned summer internship money on expensive cuisine, I set out to eat at every diner in the county.

 Although a quick Google search humbled my eager ambition (there are over fifty diners in the county), I did eat at eleven diners in as many weeks. I went to diners in Morristown, Whippany, Madison, Pequannock, Summit, Denville, and Booton. Look out Guy Fieri!

 Diners have always figured prominently in my life. During the October break of my freshman year, the first time I returned home from college, my two best friends and I got together over a meal of burgers and fries at The Sherwood. We reminisced, talked about our new experiences at college, and ran into at least a dozen other former classmates. A year later I found myself in a diner yet again. The morning after a night of debauchery at Wesleyan, four good friends and I stumbled into O’Rourke’s Diner in Middletown, Connecticut. That Saturday morning, we spent thirty minutes in line before cramming five hungry college boys into far too small a booth. I don’t know if it was my hangover, the company, or the bacon, but O’Rourke’s ranks as my favorite diner. It’s now the metric by which I gauge all others.

 I have a theory that the diner is squarely at the heart of the Northeastern town. Some say that the real heart is the public school or the hardware store; but I know, and Guy Fieri would agree, that a suburban town is incomplete without a good diner. Unlike other suburban institutions, the diner truly represents the townspeople. For instance, the crowd at a diner is extremely predictable depending on the time of day. On weekend mornings, every booth is packed with families. During weekday mornings, working men fill the counter seats and drink coffee. At 2 a.m. there are noisy teens ordering milkshakes and fries, to soak up the illicit alcohol they’ve drunk throughout the night. The diner serves food cheaply, conveniently, and charmingly to all. And that’s why the waitresses have all the good gossip.

 While diving deep into the diners of suburban New Jersey, I developed a rhythm. Whether of Greek, American or even Italian origins, each diner curled me up in a homey booth and offered a thick menu to browse. After reading the whole catalog—breakfast, lunch, dinner, goofy references to town culture, and even the kids’ menu—I would predictably order an egg sandwich, hash browns, and a chocolate milkshake. The whole quality of the diner hinges on the shake, and the thicker the better. I only broke with the routine of my plush booths once, when Iwent to the Summit Diner, a small, greasy spoon across the street from the train station. The place was so small and popular that all the booths were full, so I sat at the counter. It was just three feet away from the big flat top stove. The place was straight out of the 1950s and the staff was as rude as the food was excellent.

 I came to New Jersey without knowing anyone. Before I befriended the other interns, I was lonely. My diner survey definitely helped fix this. I was comforted by the homey food and the predictably timed crowds that moved through my New Jersey diners. On any given Sunday morning, a father and son are talking about little league, or late at night, teenagers are gabbing about prom—these are all images that are eerily similar to scenes straight out of my hometown.

 Here are three observations from my tasting tour. First, every diner has a cheeseburger named after the town. Second, the diner is the heart of the community. Everyone goes and it’s always open. At proper restaurants, the people are too prim. At a diner, people are relaxed and rowdy. If you want to get to know a town, go hang out at the diner. And third, despite the traffic on the Turnpike and the law against pumping your own gas, New Jersey isn’t so bad after all.

 Visiting friends at Amherst one Sunday this summer, we took a drive to Route 9 Diner not far from the College. Then, as always, the food was satisfying, properly greasy, and each table was bestowed with its own personal jukebox. I recommend to you an egg sandwich, hash browns, and a chocolate milkshake. Who would’ve thought the Pioneer Valley’s not so different from Jersey?