Long live dinner: From COVID, effort emerges to save NJ’s nostalgic time capsules

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There are many different foods associated with “Jersey,” but no type of restaurant is more often linked to the identity of the Garden State than the restaurant.

While not being made up here, we have long since gained the status of “Diner Capital of the World” and have not given up on the belt since. Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media

All possible culinary dynamics are seen during a dinner: family breakfast, team meeting lunch, casual and quick dinner for those who don’t know what to eat, after-party meal with friends in the wee hours, and everything in between. Diners reliably provided a plethora of menu options full of satisfying dishes and, in many places, always 24 hours a day. And where else can you have ‘breakfast all day’? Has the pandemic, however, threatened to make these places part of our memories more than our dining options?

Dinners are the origins of roadside attractions once the freeways have been built and more people have driven, which makes sense given that diners dot the state’s many roads and town centers. . In a Waze-enabled driving world, diners are still physical landmarks and signposts on our state’s landscape – which, despite declining numbers, still help us get our bearings. Although not invented here, we caught a long time ago “Dinner Capital of the World“and have not given up on the belt since.

Summit Diner is a Northern New Jersey staple known for the classic tube-shaped, modular, pewter shape we all love. Photo courtesy of Michael Gabriele

Clifton-based journalist Michael Gabriele, author of two guest books, “The story of the diners in New Jersey” and “Stories from New Jersey guests, think there are two main reasons why we have achieved this high title. First of all, even the most die-hard dinner fan might not realize that New Jersey was the “restaurant-making capital of the world.” Most of the factories producing the classic, tube-shaped and modular pewter dinner were domiciled here.

The most obvious factor was geography. With the advent of the automobile in the 1930s, New Jersey became a “corridor state” with its growing network of highways, major and secondary, not only for those traveling interstate but also in New Jersey. Jersey, and the people needed to eat. “Diners have become not only roadside places, but part of the communities, and part of our Jersey culture and popular history because of it,” said Gabriele. His latest book emphasizes this with the subtitle “Monuments to Community”. Gabriele added that many have “deep and personal experiences” associated with diners, and anyone he engages in a conversation with on the subject has strong opinions about them as well. This, of course, is no surprise to anyone who has made New Jersey their home.

Nick Kallas, right, is the owner of the Broad Street Diner in Keyport and the chairman of the board of Pan Gregorian Enterprises, a Kenilworth-based association founded 37 years ago by New Jersey restaurateurs. Photo courtesy of Michael Gabriele

This special place that diners hold in communities across the state is what has helped many people survive over the past 18 months. Nick Kallas, the owner of Broad Street Dinner in Keyport, echoed this. “Our community and the surrounding communities have been great. People really turned out once they could. Kallas has an interesting dual perspective on the past and present of New Jersey diners. He is not only a frontline independent owner, but also chairman of the board. Pangregorian companies, a Kenilworth-based association founded 37 years ago by New Jersey restaurateurs, including Kallas’ father, many of whom own restaurants.

“Many guests will not reopen. It’s not an easy business, and the pandemic has only made matters worse, ”said Kallas, who spends most of his time in his restaurant’s kitchen. The point is that before the pandemic, a lot of negative pressures had already impacted the industry, leading many of the state’s 600 or so diners to close their doors for good.

“A lot of the association’s members are suppliers, and they struggle with rising prices and delivery issues, which then negatively affect diners.” The association, however, not only provided some strength in numbers for the purchase of equipment and insurance; it has created a lobbying voice in Trenton and a central place for members seeking advice on challenges, such as staffing. “’If it’s not one thing, it’s another’ applies more than ever,” Kallas said. He added, “My father warned me to get into this business, but it’s in my blood. It’s in the blood of many of us.

Because of this, Kallas and many of his peers eat up the stress and continue to look for ways to adapt and meet challenges as they arise – now more than ever – while maintaining a perfectly comfortable atmosphere for them. clients.

An inexpensive and relatively quick meal in a relaxed atmosphere is important to our seemingly always stressed lifestyle, and New Jersey diners deliver just that. Pictured: Tick Tock Diner in Clifton. Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media

As the pandemic continues, many of the negative effects will last much longer, if not forever. Diners need to keep their place in New Jersey, and for many reasons, they will. Casual, affordable and relatively quick meals are important to our seemingly always stressed lifestyle.

Diners transform and adapt easily because they can, and they do, on a daily basis. Diners are offering items they wouldn’t have years ago. Every ingredient in stock is not only used, it is put to good use. The guests reoriented themselves even before hearing the word used. Although supply chain issues have hit them, restaurant owners continue to find ways to maintain inventory. You will rarely hear your waiter say “we’re out of this” in a restaurant.

While there aren’t as many 24-hour restaurants today, there is an all-night restaurant somewhere not far from most of us, or, at least, later than most. The establishments. Newcomers from the suburbs who have left neighboring towns that never sleep, often complain that they cannot find something to eat later that night “here”. New Jersey Citizen Eaters should direct them to favorite late-night diners or at least ask them if they have ever heard of diners. As strange as it may sound, there may be one or two people who don’t know them.

Dinners provide both great people watching and a place where locals pass each other a bit. Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media

In what is one of the most diverse states in the country, diners are perhaps the most democratic and egalitarian institutions in the state, welcoming a true cross-section of people. They provide both great people watching and, in any community, a place where locals can pass each other a bit, which is more than ever welcome.

These are just a few reasons to be sure diners will always have a place in New Jersey. “There has always been a feeling of nostalgia among diners, but in reality they are always changing, always in a state of evolution,” said Gabriele.

Restaurant closings have been and will continue to be cyclical in the past, but Gabriele also sees new people and cultures entering the business, helping to maintain their place and redefine who diners are. “I would be shocked if things changed so much that the diners disappeared altogether. They are such a part of our culture that they will always have a place in the New Jersey ecosystem.

Hank zona writes regularly on wine, spirits and a range of other topics such as food and culture. He also pour wine and spirits events of all kinds for over a decade.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to all that makes Garden State great.

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