The owners of Tops Diner have accomplished something that’s extremely difficult to do: They’ve taken the best and made it even better.
Renowned as a top-rated diner in various polls and surveys, the dazzling East Newark diner, which had a “soft opening” last October, is the culmination of a $10 million, four-year project that involved demolishing the “old” Tops, building the new structure, and adding expanded parking areas.
All That a Diner Can Be
Tops remains true to the spirit of New Jersey diners. Diner purists might point to the obvious: that it isn’t a vintage, factory-built eatery. Fair enough. However, that era of diner production in the Garden State is long gone. The characteristics, menus, clientele, and architectural styles of a diner have changed significantly over the past 125 years. Tops represents another chapter in the ongoing saga of diner evolution, and it has reached a new plateau of what a diner can be.
The diner’s multi-toned terrazzo floor is an absolute work of art. The 15,000-square-foot interior’s centerpiece is an 18-stool counter, adorned with black marble. Have a seat and you’ll find a full selection of cocktails, beer, wine, and spirits.
The vibe is informal and friendly. Patrons interact casually and share small talk. The service is excellent. The food is fresh, expertly prepared and delicious. And just like the old Tops, lines of customers still go out the door.
Beyond the Dining Room
The most impressive part of the operation happens behind the scenes. The Golemis family has spared no expense to create a giant, world-class kitchen, with ample elbow room for the many expert cooks and chefs to keep pace with the demands of hungry customers. There are separate stations for water, coffee, and ice cream.
Each year Tops regularly receives “best diner” awards from newspapers, magazines, travel guides, and online publications. The history of Tops goes back to 1938 when a man named Jess P. Persson (1884 to 1946) operated Tops Grill at the same location where today’s diner stands. It’s likely that Persson owned a mobile lunch wagon at or near the site prior to 1938. The Golemis family purchased Tops in 1972 and has overseen expansions and remodeling projects since then.
Time to Eat
During a mid-February brunch, this reporter indulged in shrimp and grits, while Linda, who hails from Nutley, ordered an egg sandwich on brioche. Two friendly chaps sitting next to us enjoyed platters of ahi tuna tacos and steak and eggs. The menu includes traditional diner favorites (egg platters, pancakes, salads, soup, BLTs, sandwiches, French toast, burgers, disco fries, and corned beef hash), along with pasta, chicken, beef and seafood dishes, meatloaf, lobster mac and cheese, and scrumptious desserts.
For Linda, any visit to Tops is a sentimental journey. She grew up in this neighborhood. Every morning during the 1940s her dad (affectionately known as “Diner” Joe), would stop for breakfast at Tops and then punch in at Harrison Supply, a masonry and concrete business, across the street from the diner. He had pride in the small Hudson County community, located along the eastern bank of the Passaic River.
Diner Joe developed his love for diners at Tops and Linda was happy to be his faithful traveling companion. “When I was a little girl, my father used to drag me along with him to his favorite diners,” she said. An engaging storyteller, Diner Joe drew in friends wherever they ate. Diner Joe Baum, a World War II veteran, passed away in March 2019, just one month after his 98th birthday. Diners were a big part of his long life. It was a good life.
In an interview for Total Food Service last year, Golemis said, “A diner is a place for people to relax, meet friends, enjoy good food, and feel comfortable,” We know he’s happy to keep that going, and we’re thrilled about it ourselves.
It’s a safe bet Diner Joe would be relaxed, happy, and utterly amazed to see how his favorite diner has been transformed, and pleased to know that the old neighborhood is in good hands.
500 Passaic Ave.
East Newark, NJ 07029