For New Jerseyans, diners are a way of life. Omelets on a Saturday morning, pancakes at midnight and stacked sandwiches at lunchtime are the constants of all Garden State locals.
But how much do we know about diners? How much do we really understand about their significance to our small state?
With the Cornelius Low House Museum in Piscataway’s free exhibit “Icons of American Culture: History of New Jersey Diners,” which runs until June 26, we can see the bigger picture behind these classic food attractions.
This year, about 4000 people — schoolchildren, diner owners and those that have special connections to diners included — have visited the exhibit, which celebrates the New Jersey diner, presents its history and evolution, and casts light on the threats that these staples face.
“This exhibit has really engaged people,” said Mark Nonestied, division head of historic sites and history services for the Middlesex County Office of Culture and Heritage. “People are bringing their own stories and information that can be added to the exhibit, plus, we’re having the conversation of who serves the best what.”
Nonestied said that the museum chose to do this exhibit because it is a quintessential New Jersey story that needed to be told, as there is a bigger picture behind what diners are to our state.
During the 20th century, more than 20 diner manufacturers operated throughout the state, such as the Paterson Vehicle Company in Paterson, the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in Elizabeth and Kullman Diner Car Company in Newark, which shipped diners all over the world. These prefabricated, stainless steel and neon lunch carts on wheels were designed to have people come in for something quick, cheap and good to eat.
Richard Gutman, director and curator of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and diner historian, said, “These have the look and feel that’s different from another restaurant in addition to great food and prices, 24-hour service and breakfast all day. It’s indescribable, but you know it when you’re in it.”
Diners may come off as kooky roadside attractions at times, but they were spurred as a survival mechanism for average workers who worked late and couldn’t afford to eat at high-end restaurants. They may have started to fulfill a basic need — to eat — but soon enough, people grew up with memories of diners and passed them on to their children.
Today, there are about 600 diners in New Jersey, many of which have evolved to stay relevant in today’s restaurant world — including the Skylark Diner in Edison.
The upscale diner is outfitted with futuristic and retro murals, taking design inspiration from the dawn of commercial jet travel in the ’60s and ’70s with brightly colored tiles, bold fabrics and sleek seating.
Plus, unlike a typical diner, the Skylark has a full bar, a wine list, a lounge and craft beers, served alongside diner classics and unique items.
“I don’t think that diners are ever going to go away, but I do think that the smart diner owners will evolve,” said Jeff McNamara, owner of Skylark Diner. “Diners are the independent unchain. You drive up Route 9 and you are going to see the same chains with the same menus. But instead, you can come here and get something a little different.”
The exhibit also shows the evolution of diners, from serving simple meals such as ham sandwiches, eggs and coffee to the addition of Italian and Greek cuisines.
Another type of ‘cuisine’ can also be found now at diners, thanks to the current trend of healthy and organic eating.
“Diners have gotten even more popular than they ever were before because owners are smart,” said Gutman. “They continue to serve the food that people want to eat, so there are more options of fresh food, farm-to-table, gluten-free, vegetarian and diner classics.”
However, it hasn’t all been an easy transition for diners to move into the newest era of dining. Many have been demolished and replaced by chain restaurants, some that are slightly more upscale and appear to be more healthy and sustainable and offer consistency across state lines.
McNamara said, “As a consumer myself, if I am in a strange place, when you are driving down the road and you see a familiar place, you know what you’re going to get and you know what the price will be. People have become lazy and they say, ’OK let’s just go there because we don’t want to be disappointed.’”
Thanks to the culture of New Jersey, though, Nonestied, Gutman and McNamara believe that diners are here to stay.
Since we are a car-culture state between New York City and Philadelphia that receives a lot of driver traffic, diners present a comfortable option where people know they can get homemade desserts, a good burger and breakfast all day.
Plus, New Jersey had the right start to become a state known for its wealth of diners. Our strong working-class community needed accessibility to a reasonably priced meal at any hour, plus, the diverse population could get cuisine of various cultures on a single menu.
“This is the story of the people of New Jersey,” said Nonestied. “It’s a very diverse state that’s well reflected in diners. You can look at a menu and see everything under the sun and that represents the people.”
Icons of American culture: History of New Jersey Diners
Where: Cornelius Low House Museum, 1225 River Road, Piscataway
When: Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, from 1 to 4 p.m., until June 26, 2016
Contact: Call 732-745-4177 or click here