Table for Two: Meet the Couple on an Epic Mission to Try Every Single Jersey Diner

“In New Jersey, diners are a religion,” says Jon Ricklin. He and his wife, Karri, have eaten at more than 200 greasy spoons across the Garden State so far.

Karri and Jon Ricklin eat at the Victoria diner in Branchville.
Karri and Jon Ricklin eat at the Victoria diner in Branchville. Photo: John Bessler

Karri Ricklin moves closer to her husband, Jon, in their cozy green booth at Branchville’s old-school Victoria Diner. On cue, the Hillsdale couple raise their plastic Pepsi tumblers, tilt their chins just so, and smile for the camera.

Clearly, they know the drill.

This will be stop number 236 in the Ricklins’ ongoing mission to chow down at every diner in the Garden State, home to more diners than any other state—at least 400. This Saturday morning photo shoot will also be one more in a string of media ops that have helped the couple gain big time attention for the chronicle of their Jersey-est of road trips on their Instagram account @njdinerjourney.

Diner owners and denizens alike have requested selfies with the unassuming Bergen County duo. “We even got a call from Governor Phil Murphy’s office,” says Jon, 66, who owns a dry-cleaning delivery service, while Karri, in her early 60s, works a full schedule as a registered nurse. “We had a nice chat and invited the governor and Tammy to join us when we hit diner 250.”

A server approaches and greets the table with a “How you doin’? Whattrya having today?” Her rapid-fire-yet-friendly spiel (bonus points if she calls them “hon”) is a surefire sign you’ve hit diner paydirt, says Jon. So does a warm greeting at the door, affordable prices, local ownership, breakfast served always, and—of course—counters, stools and booths. “Diner in the name helps,” says John, “but isn’t a must.

For the record, the Ricklins beeline for a booth whenever possible. “You can see all the action and hear your neighbors’ conversations,” says Karri—like the blow-by-blow of some woman named Mary’s colonoscopy and diabetes diagnosis, and the spectacle of an entire wedding party bounding into the Nutley Diner post-fête with the bride still in her gown, or a better chance of spotting the Boss at Roberto’s Freehold Grill, where he’s rumored to pop in sometimes.

At the outset, the Ricklins had no big plans for stardom, or even for a long-term undertaking. “We were visiting someone at the hospital in 2015 and stopped at the Livingston Diner for something to eat,” says Karri, nibbling at her usual “healthy-ish” order of a salad topped with grilled chicken and dressing on the side. “I told Jon to hold up the diner menu and snapped a picture. Then he said, ‘What if we took this exact picture in every diner in New Jersey?’ We had no idea of how many diners there were!”

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When their diner mission made a local splash, it made sense to the couple. “In New Jersey, diners are a religion. Everyone loves to talk about their favorites. They have memories of family meals or of staggering into them at 3 am in various states of sobriety,” says Jon.

But when the story blew up nationally? Chewing pensively on a pickle spear, Jon reasons that, even if a region of the country doesn’t have a true diner, practically every town has a locally owned neighborhood spot that residents want to support. “I think people love to see small businesses promoted, and they can tell that we love doing our part,” he says.

Karri and Jon Ricklin at the Victoria diner in Branchville

Jon and Karri beeline for a booth whenever possible. Photo: John Bessler

To that end, the Ricklins avoid reviewing or rating the diners they visit. “I know these people are small business owners just like me. They’re working hard, and I understand everyone has a bad day now and then,” says Jon.

On a personal level, the Ricklins’ shared mission has served as a vehicle for the couple, who have been married for nearly 40 years, to explore the state where Karri was born, and which Jon has called home since moving from Westchester County four decades ago.

“I’ll wake up on a Saturday and ask Jon, ‘Is it a Parkway, Turnpike, or Route 80 day?’” says Karri. “We’ll hit diners in less-scenic locations when the weather isn’t so nice, and then maybe walk around the local mall,” says Karri.

Other times, a far-flung diner visit “can feel like a mini vacation without a suitcase,” Karri says. Recalling the walk they took at Mount Mitchill Scenic Overlook in Atlantic Highlands after eating at the Broad Street Diner in Keyport, she waxes almost poetic. “It was sunny and warm. We got back to nature. We saw a 9/11 memorial. And the view got me as close to Staten Island as I’ve ever been.”

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Jon plucks a fry from his Cuban-sandwich platter and recounts his favorite foray: “We went to the Old Hights Brewing Company in Hightstown and then walked across the street to the historic Hightstown Diner. It was Father’s Day 2022, and our wonderful family joined us, so that also helped!”

Though the Ricklins often hit diners at off times to avoid crowds, they say newbies craving a quintessential Jersey-diner experience should show up on a Sunday morning. “The food is grilling, the eggs are flipping, and the locals are out in force, especially in rural areas. If there’s a line, be assured, people are waiting for a reason,” says Jon. Karri offers her two bits on diner decorum. “Jeans are fine. Makeup isn’t a must. But brush your teeth, and please, don’t show up in your pajamas. It’s nice to show some respect,” she says.

Of course, there are plenty of diners beyond the Garden State worthy of attention. But the Ricklins both give a shrug. “We’ve been to some,” says Karri. “I’m a Jersey girl, though. When you’re talking about diners, there’s just no comparison.”

And with that, they pay the bill, head out, and point their royal-blue Ford Escape back toward Route 80.

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