With Modern Adaptations, These Are Not Your Granddad’s Diners

Times and tastes change. The state's diners must adapt to an evolving customer base, but some things will always stay the same.

Built in the mid-1950s by Mountain View Diner Company, the Colonial in Lyndhurst retains the look of the period. Keep an eye peeled for this recurring special: shrimp salad on a roll with bacon, avocado, fresh spinach and tomato slices, with a cup of clam chowder on the side. It’s a winner.
Built in the mid-1950s by Mountain View Diner Company, the Colonial in Lyndhurst retains the look of the period. Keep an eye peeled for this recurring special: shrimp salad on a roll with bacon, avocado, fresh spinach and tomato slices, with a cup of clam chowder on the side. It’s a winner. Photo by Frank Marshal

MENUS “The old-time diner menu is too big,” says Spiro Hadjiyerou, who owns the Colonial in East Brunswick. “You can’t keep that much food without pre-making it or freezing it. Less is better.” He has pared his dinner menu to two pages that change weekly and feature grass-fed beef, all-natural chicken and ethically sourced seafood. Bobby Varua, culinary director of the Americana in East Windsor, has reduced his menu to a single page. The Omega in North Brunswick is adding a separate organic menu. The Nevada in Bloomfield offers gluten-free pancakes and waffles, plus vegan options and smoothies.

HOURS The classic 24/7 diner is “a dying breed,” says Hadjiyerou. The Tropicana in Elizabeth manages because of local clubs and night-owl students at Kean University. Generally, “it’s not worth staying open,” says Nick Fifis of Ponzio’s in Cherry Hill. “The late-night business isn’t there.” Some owners speculate that patrons are staying home streaming TV and other online diversions.

DELIVERY If you live in Bloomfield or one of four adjacent towns, a Nevada Diner delivery service will bring an order ($20 minimum) to your door; so will UberEats or GrubHub. Ten percent of Ponzio’s business now comes from takeout and delivery, Fifis estimates.

CATERING A growth area. Ponzio’s will provide party platters for up to 50 guests and can serve up to 75 in its private rooms. In the Omega’s private rooms, “we do a lot of graduation parties, company lunches, seminars,” says owner Ahmed Waseem. “And at least one funeral a week.”

OWNERSHIP Tommy Varcarolis, who owns the Tropicana in Elizabeth, estimates that 75 to 80 percent of Jersey diners remain owned by Greek-Americans, but he sees the percentage slipping. Waseem agrees. “Everybody has the same story,” he says. “The first generation came 30 or 35 years ago. It was a hard life.” Now, their better-educated children are declining to join the business, says Waseem, who should know. An immigrant from Pakistan, he and his partners bought three Jersey diners in six years, in each case from Greek owners: the Crystal in Tom’s River, the Omega and the Stratford in Stratford.

STAFF The work force is diversifying. Varcarolis is taking Spanish lessons “so I can talk to my staff—and my customers.” Alex Nissirios nearly runs out of fingers trying to list all the places the Nevada workers have come from: Philippines, Trinidad, Ecuador, Mexico, Finland, Palestine, Albania, Lebanon and, of course, Greece. Servers are increasingly likely to be men. Nobody knows why; possibly, women have more job options to choose from.

PORTIONS At last, one thing that doesn’t change. “I don’t want a look of disappointment when a customer sees the plate,” says Tropicana owner Varcarolis. “I want a look of amazement: ‘Oh my god, how am I going to eat all this?’”

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