Diner Closings Worry Jersey’s Foodie Faithful

Reports on the death of New Jersey’s beloved diner enterprise have been greatly exaggerated.

Well, at least we hope so.

News reports on diner closings and demolitions throughout the Garden State are disturbing. And while angst is real, this “churn” has been part of the diner business for many years. New Jersey has seen periods of downturns in the diner business before. During the 1960s and 1970s, many family-owned diners closed due to the influx of national fast-food chains.

When a favorite diner is shuttered, it removes the hub of a community, the gathering place for friends and travelers. New Jerseyans know that “a diner is more than just a place to eat and food is only half the meal.”

Part of the NJ Experience

A diner’s absence erodes the Garden State’s mythology: highballing truckers stopping to refuel their stomachs and souls at 3 a.m.; the wanderlust of hungry teenagers roaming the highways, inspired by the poetry of a Bruce Springsteen song; sunrise breakfasts Down the Shore; the unexpected, heartfelt conversation with a stranger at a diner counter — someone you’ll never see again, but will always remember.

The demolition of a vintage, modular, prefabricated factory-built diner from the 20th century also represents the loss of an iconic example of American industrial history and ingenuity.

An Optimistic Outlook

Author, consultant, and historian Richard Gutman, of Massachusetts, has tracked the diner business for five decades. He offered some perspective. “I would tell people in New Jersey to calm down,” he said during a phone interview. “Diners aren’t going to disappear. Yes, there is a downturn. Diner closings have been a blip in the wrong direction.”

Gutman remains optimistic about the big picture for diners as a viable business and American cultural institution. He acknowledged that many have suffered from Covid’s pinch. He also said that social media, with amplified reporting on diner closings, creates an overly grim outlook. “I have my opinions, he said. “I admit they’re controversial, but I’ve been doing this for 50 years.”

The Bottom Line

Larry Cultrera, is another Massachusetts diner sage, author, and photo archivist. He said that he, too, has seen his share of diner closings over the years in the Bay State. He pointed out that, in his neck of the woods, “building, transporting and setting up a diner has become cost prohibitive.”

The post-Covid world has been hard on diner owners. Costs have gone up for supplies, food, rent, equipment, and maintenance. Diner owners say it’s become difficult to hire, train, and retain staff, especially for late-night operations.

Pilgrim Diner Back in Business
Pilgrim Diner, in Cedar Grove

In some cases, diner owners simply decide to retire, with no one waiting in the wings. Many proprietors don’t own the valuable property on which the diner sits, and they may be forced to close by a new landlord.

The (Garden) State of Affairs

Anecdotal observations suggest that today’s Garden State diner sector is, at the very least, holding steady. Several landmark diners remain fixtures on the New Jersey circuit. They include:

  • Broad Street Diner, Keyport
  • Candlewyck Diner, East Rutherford
  • Johnny Prince’s Bayway Diner, Linden
  • Park West Diner, Little Falls
  • Pompton Queen Diner, Pompton Plains
  • Silver Coin, Hammonton
  • State Line Diner, Mahwah
  • Summit Diner, Summit
  • Tick Tock Diner, Clifton
  • Tops Diner, East Newark
  • Vincentown Diner, Southampton Township

The Pilgrim Diner, in Cedar Grove, reopened in September 2021, after having been closed for several years. The Runway Diner, in South Hackensack, opened its doors three years ago. East Hanover’s Seville Diner, which closed in 2021, is slated to reopen this year. And The Blairstown Diner was put up for sale earlier this year, so its fate is uncertain. Hopefully, a new owner will emerge to sustain diner operations, which began in 1949.

On the flip side, here’s a list of diners that we’ve lost in recent years. Many have been torn down or relocated, and some are in the process of closing:

  • Arena Diner, Hackensack
  • Cherry Hill Diner, Cherry Hill
  • Crossroads Diner, Belvedere
  • Egg Platter, Paterson
  • Elgin Diner, Camden
  • Empire Diner, Parsippany
  • Forum Diner, Paramus
  • Liberty Park Diner, Jersey City
  • Maple Valley Diner, Clifton
  • Marlton Diner, Marlton
  • Mastoris Diner, Bordentown
  • Metro Diner, East Brunswick
  • Mom’s Diner, Avenel/Woodbridge
  • Mustache Bill’s, Barnegat Light
  • Nicholas Diner, Paterson
  • Olga’s Diner (the original), Marlton
  • Peter Pank Diner, South Amboy
  • Prout’s Diner, Sussex
  • Red Lion Diner, Southampton Township
  • Royal Diner, Washington
  • Sage Diner, Mount Laurel
  • Shamong Diner, Shamong
  • Six Brothers, Little Falls
  • Tom’s Diner, Succasunna
  • USA Country Diner, Robbinsville

In addition, last year fires badly damaged two Phillipsburg diners — Key City and Catch 22. Reports indicate demolition recently began on the Key City Diner. It’s uncertain when or if the Catch 22 Diner will reopen.

The Egg Platter, in Paterson
The Empire Diner, in Parsipanny
The Marlton Diner, in Marlton
Mustache Bill’s, in Barnegat Light
Red Lion Diner, in Southampton Township
Tom’s Diner, in Succasunna