Can New Jersey really claim to be the diner capital of the world?
According to Michael C. Gabriele, the Garden State’s foremost diner expert, the answer—hearty as a patty melt and milkshake—is yes.
Gabriele estimates that New Jersey is currently home to somewhere between 500 and 525 diners: slightly lower than the tally during the state’s diner heyday around the 1950s, but still more than anywhere else in the country and the world.
Jersey was also once the leading diner manufacturing capital, Gabriele says. Although now extinct, most of the major U.S. diner builders were based here during the 20th century. “That really put New Jersey on the map,” he says.
Some Jersey diners have since been moved to other parts of the country, or even across the ocean to Europe. “Europeans are crazy about American diners,” says Gabriele, author of the books Stories From New Jersey Diners and The History of Diners in New Jersey. “To them, a Jersey diner—that’s real American culture: rock ‘n’ roll, and Elvis Presley, and hamburgers and french fries.”
Gabriele says some purists can be picky about what constitutes a tried-and-true diner; that it’s “not really a diner unless it’s modular, prefabricated, built in a factory.” But, he adds, “as long as it’s true to the diner spirit…I don’t get too narrow-minded about that kind of stuff.”
In his humble opinion, however, a Jersey diner should serve breakfast at any time of the day. And a stool at the quintessential counter, he maintains, is the best seat in the house.
“That’s where you meet all the interesting people,” says Gabriele, whose new book, Colonial Taverns of New Jersey, is out April 23.“People are coming and going, and you meet truck drivers and salespeople and politicians. It’s all ships passing in the night. That’s where all Americana conversations start, right there. There’s always a story. It’s almost like a state of mind.”
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