I’ve written about my diner adventures before; I’ve lived in New Jersey for most of my life, and diners are everywhere. Some are better than others, and about two years ago, Matthew (then 12) and I decided to take advantage of our solo Sunday mornings, when Michael is in Hebrew school and Dave is playing basketball. We agreed to have breakfast together every free Sunday morning, and we’d try a new diner each time. The criteria? It had to be within about a 15-minute drive, and either be recommended by a friend or have at least 3 1/2 stars on Yelp.
We haven’t gone every week, but we’ve tried a lot of new places (and sometimes traveled a little further than our original 15-minute limit). I think because we have narrow criteria, we haven’t been to a lot of terrible places. And we haven’t had any terrible times; it’s been nice to share some time alone and talk about whatever has been going on.
This past summer, Matthew and I were lucky enough to be invited to join the Star-Ledger Munchmobile for a not-so-coincidental trip around New Jersey to eat pancakes and waffles for a day. It was a cool, strange and slightly nauseating experience. I’m so glad we shared that day, along with the rest of our weekly diner adventures.
At the request of a friend, following is a list of diners we’ve visited, separated into three categories – “worth a trip,” “pretty good,” and “wouldn’t bother,” along with our reasons why (although after a couple of years, while I remember whether or not we enjoyed our meal, I definitely can’t remember what we ate in some of the places). I’m certainly no food critic, and I know that our taste isn’t the same as everyone’s, but I hope you enjoy reading about where we’ve been!
Worth a trip
Tops Diner, East Newark. This place often wins “best diner in New Jersey” honors, so despite the slightly longer drive, we definitely wanted to check it out. It’s a big place with ample parking, but be prepared for a wait for a table. It’s more upscale-looking on the inside than I was expecting, the food was good, and service was quick an no-nonsense.
Rise & Shine, Fanwood. We’d driven by this place so many times without realizing that it was even a diner. It’s a nearby favorite now, and we’ve been there a few times. The coffee is good, food is consistently tasty (I always order French Toast), we’ve never had to wait for a table, and the service is pleasant.
Urban Griddle, Elizabeth. This is a funky restaurant on the side of a busy part of Rt. 1&9, and it looks like it doesn’t quite belong there. But it’s upscale and cozy, and the food is delicious, plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Matthew ate cake batter pancakes (perfectly flavored, and not as sweet as they could have been), and I had French Toast and some really good coffee. It’s worth a drive.
Lenora’s Cafe, Keyport. This was a midday stop on our Munchmobile tour. Matthew and I both loved it, and because we were traveling with a larger group, we were able to taste more from the menu. We tried a few different specialty waffles, pancakes and omelets. My favorite was the Crunchy Waffle, with granola and dulce de leche.
Toast, Montclair. Also a Munchmobile stop. Matthew and I loved something called the “Shamewich” – basically a Taylor Ham, egg and cheese sandwich, using pancakes instead of a roll, and served with syrup. It was delicious. We also loved the Red Velvet pancakes, and it was nice to sit outside on a quiet Montclair morning.
Park Wood Diner, Maplewood. This was one of our first stops on our original “diner tour” a few years ago. It’s crowded and you may have to wait for a seat at the closely-positioned tables. But the food is really good for standard diner fare, and the staff was just really nice.
White Diamond, Clark. Okay, so this isn’t the type of place I’d normally give lots of praise to. But it’s Matthew’s favorite. A definite hole-in-the-wall with a counter and a handful of booths. We’ve been a few times, and the staff is always really pleasant, the food is super cheap and the classic Taylor Ham, Egg and Cheese on a roll (the only thing I’ve ever ordered there) is consistently good. It’s cash only, and some of the food is served on paper plates, but for the price, it can’t be beat.
Kenilworth Diner, Kenilworth. This was a pretty typical New Jersey diner. The food was good (I had a yummy Taylor Ham, Egg and Cheese); the service had a smidge of attitude. The weird part about this place was that it felt like we were crashing a party; it was full of regulars, even on a Sunday morning.
Vicki’s Diner, Westfield. Yes, you’ll probably have to wait for a table, crowded in the front of the restaurant with other people and their impatient kids. And once you’re seated, you’ll probably be cramped in the small booths (if you can, grab a seat at the counter, where service is quick). The food here is consistently good, and while some of the wait staff have a bit of New Jersey attitude, Vicki’s is a good diner standby.
Manny’s, Clark. Our first visit here was disappointing. I ordered blintzes, which didn’t taste quite like I was expecting them to (and they were served oddly on a plate full of shredded lettuce). But after a friend raved about Manny’s, we tried it again. They were crowded but not full on a Sunday morning, and pancakes and coffee were much better. I’d definitely go again, but not for the blintzes.
Skylark Diner, Edison. Personally, I think this place is overpriced and a little overrated. It’s diner food made a little more upscale (and more expensive). The Belgian Waffle here was good, and so was the spinach and cheese omelet. Some people love it here, and there are nice touches (the table is given a baguette to share, and toast is served with strawberry cream cheese and orange marmalade), but personally, I don’t think it’s worth what you’ll pay.
Park Avenue Diner, South Plainfield. This was one we went out of our way for, based on good Yelp reviews (I think that since we went, the rating has gone down). It was full of old-school tacky, mirrored diner décor, and pretty empty on a Sunday morning. Matthew ordered peanut butter pancakes, which were served with a clump of half-melted peanut butter chips that didn’t taste much like peanut butter. When I asked the waitress about it, she seemed kind of confused. Overall, just not great.
Plum on Park, Montclair. This place looked upscale on our Munchmobile tour, but we thought the food was just okay. Fresh-squeezed juice was a nice touch, but there was definitely a celery flavor in Matthew’s orange juice. The Belgian waffle was tasty, but we didn’t love much else. It was quiet on a Saturday morning. I really wanted to like it, but just didn’t.
Goodman’s, Berkeley Heights. This place was nearly empty on a Sunday morning. With a name like Goodman’s, I was expecting more of an old-fashioned Jewish deli. It wasn’t. And a red flag here: when I ordered blintzes, the waitress asked me what exactly they were. Really??! And I’m pretty sure they were the same frozen ones I can buy at the supermarket.
Rustic Mill Diner, Cranford. I found a small spill of dishwashing liquid on the plate of food that was served to me. While I respect cleanliness, this was too much for me. Eeew.
Summit Diner, Summit. We didn’t get it. This beloved diner gets high ratings on websites. We waited a few minutes to get squished in at the counter, and while the food was okay, neither of us thought that it was enough to overcome the uncomfortable surroundings. Yes, the old train car looks cool from the outside, but we found it hot and crowded inside.
We still have a number of places that we want to try – Manny’s Diner in Montclair, the Brownstone Diner in Jersey City, and more. And as Matthew is growing up, I realize that we don’t have an endless supply of diner Sunday mornings, so I’m going to savor our time together.