New Jersey Diners fading from menu of cultural icons

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Steve Tepperman
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New Jersey Diners fading from menu of cultural icons

Postby Steve Tepperman » Sun Aug 23, 2009 5:46 pm

Diners fading from menu of cultural icons
Sunday, August 09, 2009
Philip Read
New Jersey's diners -- some sleek and retro, some just plain -- might be showing up on the endangered species list.

Ray Smith's Stafford Smith Realty in Shrewsbury, for one, is now hawking five diners in New Jersey, the seat of that quintessential shiny symbol of American culture.

"I expect a lot of them will be redeveloped," Smith said. "I'm very sad to see it, but then again times change."

The diners of old -- places of burgers, blue plate specials, soda pop floats and the proverbial two eggs over easy -- have already been undergoing makeovers as varied as their menus.

The West Orange Diner, once known as Charlie's Diner and then as the Tory Corner Diner, bills itself as a "Pancake House and Diner." It's on the market, advertised as an "updated '50s style diner in the heart of town."

At the little Armeta's Restaurant on a Newark street corner, the fare tilts decidedly toward the soul-food variety.

"I eat there once a week, the freshest catfish," said Clayton Brown, the agent handling the diner's sale for Newark's Peterpaul Real Estate Agency. "I eat catfish and eggs."

In Armeta's case, Brown said, the use is likely to change. "We'll probably put another business there," he said. "There's no parking at all."

To be sure, cultural shifts are partly to blame in New Jersey's changing diner landscape.

The Eagle Rock Diner on a busy West Orange Avenue used to be open 24-7. No more. Hundreds of hungry patrons used to queue up when the nightclub next store closed at 2 a.m. No more.

"A dying breed," said Theodore "Teddy" Spiros, whose now-73-year-old father, Meleas, purchased the West Orange dining spot 30 years ago.

"There's just endless things in how the dining cosmos has changed," said younger brother George, 24. "Just the idea of what a diner is in New Jersey is different."

Gone are the boyhood days when George Spiros' mom would wake him and enlist him in the service of a twisting line of late-night customers pouring in. "It was a zoo." The nightclub is long since gone.

These days, the diner opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 10:30 p.m. "I was doing 90-hour weeks one summer," he said. "Right now, I'm just doing 62, five days a week."

Some things, of course, never change. Take the revolving seven-level cooler case displaying massive chocolate cream and lemon meringue pies and an equally large carrot cake just inside the doors of Eagle Rock. The take-out menus are stuffed in a ceramic holder shaped like a classic American diner. But at lunchtime one summer day, there were relatively few patrons. "It's just not the same anymore," Teddy Spiros said.

Just 2.5 miles away, at the iconic Harris Diner in neighboring East Orange, Bill Nicholas and his brother-in-law, Bill Marmaras, have decided that the decades of long hours are near an end at a nostalgia-packed eatery often captured as the backdrop for Tums commercials.

Diners listed on the market stretch from Cliffside Park in Bergen County to Ewing in Mercer to Manahawkin in Ocean and points in between.

"Very often, there's a retirement factor," Smith said. "They're just tired. A lot of people have been waiting a year or more, and they just can't wait any longer, so they put it in the market and wait for the best."

The recipe is often just plain economics.

Last year, the circa-1960s Forum Diner on busy Route 4 in Paramus was to be demolished to make way for a Jeep dealership, but the collapse of Chrylser turned that idea upside-down, said agent Richard Brock of the Paramus-based NIA Group.

Since the diner went back on the market, at $4.4 million, he said, he has received about 150 calls in 30 days. "The economics are such that to resurrect a diner there would be difficult," Brock said. "Right now, we're trying to position it for someone who wants to build a larger building."

The re-listing, however, gives a young New York preservationist named Michael Perlman some extra time to literally move the Forum out of harm's way. Perlman formed a "Committee to Save the Forum Diner," following up on his rescue of chic Soho's Moondance Diner, now touted as "The Little Diner That Could" in its new home in Labarge, Wyo.

"Freestanding diners are becoming an endangered species today at an alarming rate," said Perlman, who is 28. "But to our advantage, they were factory-built and pre-assembled and therefore manufactured to move."

Meanwhile, the societal shift away from an order of eggs in a skillet continues to take hold. The old Short Stop Diner on Bloomfield's Franklin Avenue, is now a Dunkin' Donuts. Not far away, a little steel diner, once a circa-1957 White Circle burger joint, became Big Vic's BBQ and is being reincarnated again as a pizzeria.

That happened long ago to the one-time diner on Long Hill Road in Little Falls. Since the mid-1990s, it's been the home of Mainline Pizzeria, so long that owner Domenick Maisano can't recall the eatery's original name.

Less than a mile away, the old Little Falls Diner, manufactured by Master Diner in Pequannock in the 1940s, has been shuttered since a fire about a decade ago.

"I don't know what to do with it," said Jim Cestone, who owns a stretch of properties with shops along quaint Paterson Avenue. Suitors emerge, he said, but the devil's in the details. "It needs a good overhaul. You've got to sell a lot of eggs and hamburgers to cover the cost of it. "¦ I'm ready to pick it up and send it to heaven really."

Philip Read may be reached at or (973) 392-1851.

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Postby modfan » Sun Aug 23, 2009 7:49 pm

Guy Fieri with his Diners, Drive-ins and Dives needs to visit em!!

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Postby missyb » Mon Aug 24, 2009 2:09 pm

That's so very sad.

For those wishing to reminisce, I recommend the following two sites:

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Postby sky » Mon Aug 24, 2009 6:12 pm

I think Guy did visit some of them, modfan - the White Manna, which is a classic diner in Hackensack, for sure. I also recall seeing him at the Ritz Diner in Livingston - more of an upscale updated diner, though.

They might have been able to save some New Jersey diners if only they had made them settings for The Sopranos when they could.

I grew up in West Orange, and know most of the sites in the article. The demise of the diners there started in the 70s, about when I left, although there is no correlation of those two events. I think the demise in part was caused by Interstate 280, which made it possible to not drive through the surface streets. In West Orange, having a McDonalds in town was fought for many years, but ultimately they built one there on Northfield Avenue, and I think that also took its toll.

What’s also interesting is that some very successful restaurants are no longer there. I’ve heard the Claremont Diner in Verona is kaput. Don’s Drive-in in Livingston, not a diner technically, but always had long waiting lines for its great food, bit the dust too. So maybe it is as the articles says a retirement factor.

The one my group of friends hung out at was the Orange Circle. On what we all now call Orange Circle Day, June 5, 1972, I ate five Texas Wieners there during second period, then a record, and got sick during calculus in third period. But it was one of the greatest days of my life.

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Postby sky » Wed Sep 09, 2009 7:28 pm

I was cleaning out some files today, and found an article from June 1997 in the Star-Ledger about my old favorite, the Orange Circle. I'll post some images and links to that below, but probably of more interest to the Board is that it triggered a series of events that made me search for the image in this link: ... urgers.htm

I'm positioning you on my favorite diner, but please check out his other links - galleries and photos of diners. You'll be glad that you did.

If you want to read the article I uncovered and scanned today, you have to go to these two high res images to be able to read it: ... dger_4.jpg ... dger_4.jpg

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