A diner offers the comfort of a sure place
By MARK S. PORTER
For Montclair Local
“Two scrambled eggs, rye toast, pork roll, and a side of ‘Stories.’”
Calling them “monuments to community,” author Michael C. Gabriele has written a new book on the Garden State’s roadside eateries. “Stories from New Jersey Diners” is Gabriele’s second cuppa following his “The History of Diners in New Jersey,” published in 2013. Packed with photos of diners and their patrons past and present, “Stories” abounds in over-easy anecdotes and rueful remembrances of diners now gone.
“As diners say, a diner is more than just a place to eat. Food is only half the meal,” said Gabriele in a recent interview . “It’s a place to go to talk, to share things. There are the conversations with fellow diners, the slice-of-life encounters.”
In his new book, while exploring the concept and construction of diners, Gabriele focuses on the cast of characters within different diners: the owners, the cooks and waitstaff, the regulars, the patrons such as you. “I got a cowboy, I got truck drivers, I got a state trooper,” Gabriele said.
He’ll speak and sign copies of his book at Watchung Booksellers, 54 Fairfield St., on Saturday, Nov. 30, from 1 to 2 p.m.
WHIPPIN' UP DINERS
“New Jersey is the diner capital of the world. Equally important,” Gabriele emphasized, “New Jersey is the diner manufacturing capital of the world.”
In “Stories,” Gabriele estimates 500 to 600 diners are scattered throughout the state, more than anywhere else, and nearly all of them factory-built.
During the 20th century, New Jersey’s more than 20 diner manufacturers produced eateries throughout the U.S.
“During the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Jersey-built diners captured the distinctive Streamline Moderne architectural style, an outgrowth of the Art Deco movement and the American ‘Machine Age,’ which featured the design elements of sleek lines and aerodynamic forms, packaged with neon lights, glass bricks, marble countertops, terrazzo floors and decorative tile,” he said.
“They were modular, prefabricated structures usually built in three or four sections and assembled on site,” said Gabriele, explaining that the diners’ stainless steel panels and sleek embellishments epitomized the era’s design motifs of streamlined speed.
“Casually speaking, the diner is common in our Northeast region: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island. Down in the South, people liked drive-ins,” noted Gabriele. “Whenever you see retro-Americana posters, there’s a diner in it.”
Through its history, Montclair has boasted several diners. According to Gabriele, the Plum on Park bistro, 14 Park St, might be New Jersey’s oldest or second-oldest diner structure, built on the tract in 1929 and in its early days called the Park Diner.
HAVENS, WITH HAMBURGERS TOO
With its many highways, New Jersey propagated diners, Gabriele said. “The diner business needs a lot of hungry people, and you need road density. We were the ‘corridor state.’”
His book categorizes New Jersey into North, Central and South in delineating diners. While familiar with scores of diners throughout the state, Gabriele doesn’t attempt to visit and review all of them. In conversation, he cites several personal favorites such as the Summit Diner.
“The Summit Diner looks the same as when they parked it there in 1938. That’s a classic New Jersey factory-built diner,” he said.
In Summit and many other municipalities, successful diners assimilate into the communities. “It becomes their diner. They have ownership,” said Gabriele of loyal patrons. “‘That’s our waitress.’ It could be a place where everyone knows your name, a ‘Cheers.’
“In the old days, the menu offered fresh food, unpretentious American food, a special meal every day, a special pie every day. That’s how they made their mark.”
“People like eight pages of menus, but most people have two or three selections,” said Gabriele. “I have certain favorites. Two eggs over easy, corned beef and hash, some home fries and coffee. That’s the default for me.”
A 1975 graduate of Montclair State University, Gabriele is a Clifton resident. A longtime journalist and writer, he is also a musician and visual artist and is a member of Studio Montclair. As a night-owl performer, he’s relied on diners for that late-night bite.
“The nice thing about a diner is it’s egalitarian. You walk in, you get a seat, and you get a smile.”
“Stories from New Jersey Diners” teems with observations of patrons and people beyond the counter.
Throughout the state, Gabriele had a protocol for assembling his book: “I walk in, sit at the counter, order some food, and introduce myself.”
He arranged to interview Bobby Roberto, a cowboy in Salem County whose favorite eatery is the Swedesboro Diner. He interviewed Italian and Greek emigres, or the children or grandchildren of emigres who began their lives in America working in diners. Some cooks or busboys saved through the years and eventually bought their own diners.
“There’s someone living the American Dream from India,” he said of a diner owner with whom he spoke. “We’ve very diverse in New Jersey. That’s something to be proud of.”
EITHER/OR, WITH EGG AND CHEESE
Gabriele acknowledges the big debate among some Jersey food aficionados for the staple of all Jersey diners: Taylor Ham or pork roll?
In the book’s “Southern New Jersey” section, he devotes a chapter, “It Depends on Where You Live,” to the moniker for the “smoked processed pork and spices.”
“It’s pork roll in the southern half of the state and Taylor Ham in the northern half,” he writes. “The mystical dividing line runs through East Brunswick.”
When displaying a PowerPoint image of the fried meat slice, “That’s become my new laugh-line: ‘Now, what is this? Pork roll or Taylor Ham?’” said Gabriel.
“I didn’t duck from it. I confronted it,” he acknowledges. “Pork roll is the proper term. Ham is the thigh and butt. Everything else is pork.”
Of course, a secondary debate persists over the proper American cheese slice to melt over the pork roll on the griddle. White cheese or yellow?
For Gabriele and many other Garden Staters, visits to diners entail more than the myriad entrees and the colorful cakes and pastries behind glass displays.
“You come for the food,” observed Gabriele. “You stay for the stories.”