‘Round the Clock at the Tick Tock

NJ Diner - the Tick Tock Diner in Clifton NJ - New Jersey Monthly, The Best of Jersey

Arlene and Maurice Goldstein have been loyal Tick Tockers for 17 years.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey

You’ve dashed into a diner for a cup o’ joe to go, or wolfed down a short stack at the counter, or slid into a booth with pals. But when you settle in for 24 hours at one of Jersey’s most beloved joints, you behold a teeming world.

Stick-to-your-ribs food is back in fashion, but even when grazing was the buzzword, the Tick Tock Diner stuck to its guns. The motto on the big roof clock that faces Route 3 is “Eat Heavy.” Not even a massive renovation in 1994 was allowed to erase that clock and its iconic message.

Twin lobster tails and wedges of strawberry cheesecake aside, the 60-year-old Clifton landmark has an even higher function—as a place to Meet Heavy. Generations of families, friends, and co-workers have bonded over the gleaming tabletops of the Tick Tock, which never closes. (There isn’t even a lock on the door.) The lights are always bright and the welcome warm. For that credit the current generation of owners—George Spyropoulos, 40, his brother-in-law, Frank Nicoles, 38, and Frank’s cousin Jimmy Vasilopoulos, 33. At least one of them is always stationed by the glass pastry case at the entrance, ready to chat up the regulars or deal with any emergency, like a ship captain on the bridge.

We set out to experience 24 hours in the life of this beehive. From 6 pm, Friday, November 30, to 6 pm the next day, waves of humanity flowed through the 275-seat diner with barely a lull. Some people came twice, one couple came three times.  The stories, like the coffee, were bottomless.

7:56 pm Toasting the end of an era
Maurice and Arlene Goldstein, who have owned a nearby Dairy Queen for 24 years, began frequenting the Tick Tock 17 years ago. Now 67, a happy Arlene orders an amaretto sour “with four cherries” to celebrate today’s sale of the DQ. She and her family—husband Maurice, 76, and their 43-year-old twin sons, Alan and Sam—are here because the Tick Tock remains “a great place to grab a bite,” says Alan, a chiropractor. “I live by the ‘Tick Tock rule,’” he adds. “I treat all my patients as if I’m going to run into them at the Tick Tock.” As the family leaves, Arlene says they’ll be back for breakfast at 10 am.

12:32 am Two musicians play “I got the check”

Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg, trombonist of the Asbury Jukes, slides into a booth with his friend Joe Prinzo, 45, a Jukes sound engineer. One month into the Screenwriters’ Guild strike, LaBamba, 45ish, whose day job is playing in the Max Weinberg Seven, the house band of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, has time to kill. Prinzo, just back from a European tour, tucks into a Cuban sandwich. “When you’ve been on the road like we have, in towns and countries that shut down at 6 pm, you really miss places like this,” he says. When the waitress slaps down the bill, LaBamba reaches for it. “Give me that!” says Prinzo. “You’re out of work!”

1:00 am A courier refills between rounds
Sitting in a booth studying a map, Matt Dombrowski, 56, has been awake nearly 24 hours. An “urgent courier,” he delivers rush packages anytime anywhere. He lives in Wilkes Barre, Pa., and stops here about once a month. “I haven’t eaten since 11:30 this morning,” he says between bites of a Mexican omelet. “I like this place. The food’s good, the service is good. They seem to care that you came in. Even if they don’t, they pretend they do.”

3:46 am The goon squad hits the deck
Sprawled on the gold carpet, Pete Weeks is laughing so hard he’s writhing and gasping for breath. Something his buddy Tom Schaffer said poked his funnybone so hard he toppled right off his chair. Standing over his prone friend, Schaffer waves his arms like a boxing referee and shouts, “We’re 100 percent awesome right now!” Eventually, the two 23-year-olds—former Montclair State students now living in South Jersey—will drag themselves back to the burgers and wings they’ve been gobbling to soak up a night’s worth of Jack Daniel’s imbibed at Molly’s in North Arlington. The designated driver in the group is 24-year-old Joe Pecore, a bouncer at Molly’s, who will make sure the two clowns get home safely.

3:48 am Pickles and leopard-print slippers
Watching the laugh riot from a nearby booth, Laura Sarachelli, 23, continues calmly dipping pickles in honey mustard—her Tick Tock treat of choice. When she shuffled in wearing leopard-print slippers, the staff wondered if she’d just climbed out of bed. But her hairdo, makeup and clothes belied that impression. Turns out she had spent the night dancing at a local club with her husband and a friend. Before entering the Tick Tock with them, she swapped her blue-suede heels for fuzzy slippers because “my feet get cold.”

5:45 am Ironworkers serenaded by vacuum cleaner
Only about six of the diner’s dozens of tables are occupied. A man in a Tick Tock T-shirt vacuums the main dining room. On the sound system, Tracey Chapman is singing, “Give me one reason to stay here…” The waitresses take advantage of the lull to polish the stainless-steel panels on the walls. Three sweat-stained members of Ironworkers Local 483 file in after a night shift doing bridge repairs on Route 3. Before heading home to shower and sleep, they breakfast on bacon and eggs.

6:00 am Work? That’s a piece o’ cake
Tony Kavourakis, 60, has been working at the Tick Tock more than 25 years, longer than the family who owns it. (When they bought the place, they kept him on because he was so good.) He heads downstairs to whip up the day’s supply of cheesecakes—about half a dozen. In a week, the bakery turns out about two dozen extra large pies, about ten dozen muffins, and a similar number of éclairs.  Thanksgiving is the biggest day of the year for bakery take-out—about 50 cheesecakes and 50 other pies or cakes.
Christmas is the busiest day of the year for dining in. The place is packed all day long. “Nobody cooks on Christmas anymore,” says co-owner Frank Nicoles.

7:25 am Invasion of the tour buses
Owner George Spyropoulos hangs up the phone. “They’re five minutes away,” he announces. By prior arrangement, two tour buses en route to Manhattan are about to disgorge 110 passengers. Spyropoulos has earmarked most of the dining room for them. The tour guides bound in first to make sure everything is copacetic. Spyropoulos tells them that the passengers will be seated in groups of four. “Don’t ask to split checks,” he warns, attempting to avert an epic queue at the cash register.

The passengers file in slowly, looking groggy. Little wonder —they’ve been on the road since 11:30 pm, Friday, when the buses left Jamestown, NY. Jamestown is “the home of Lucille Ball,” says passenger Pete Morgante, 77, who is taking his daughter-in-law Maura and granddaughter Molly to see the Rockettes. Molly, 15, studied  dance, and even sang “How Much is that Doggy in the Window” on The Jenny Jones Show. “It was the cutest thing you’ve ever seen in your life,” swears her grandfather. Maura, a redhead in a red sweater, says she hasn’t been to New York since September 11, 2001, and plans to visit FAO Schwarz, Saks, and Ground Zero.

7:50 am A show that beats the Rockettes
The clicking of cups and saucers and stirring teaspoons signals the peak of the breakfast rush. Dominick Paruta, 60, sits alone at the counter, sipping coffee, for the second time today. (He came in for his customary 4:30 am cup and chuckled at the antics of the young drunks.) He sees no reason to blow money on extravagances like the Rockettes.

“For the price of a cup of coffee, you can’t get a better show,” he says. “There have even been a couple of good fights in here.” To discourage such ruckus, the Tick Tock hires a uniformed Clifton  policeman to keep an eye on things from midnight to 5 am on weekends.

In a nearby booth, George Zanetti, 68, reflects on the Clifton of his boyhood. Zanetti, who grew up a literal stone’s throw from the Tick Tock, would spend his lawn-mowing earnings on his favorite dish at the time, “boiled ham and eggs.” Route 3 used to be such a sleepy road, he recalls, that a boy could scamper across with barely a glance in either direction. Now traffic whizzes by day and night at such a clip that even pulling out of the parking lot requires the timing of the Great Wallendas. “What was our baseball field is now a traffic circle,” Zanetti says, referring to an area just off the highway. “There were woods right down the road. It was pretty neat back then.”

8:35 am A gift for a NASCAR fan
Busboys hefting basins of dirty dishes zoom past Jerry Sullivan, sitting at the counter, and disappear through the swinging doors of the kitchen. Sullivan hardly notices them. He’s got his eyes peeled for waitress Lisa Fenner.
Spotting her, he calls out, “Oh, there’s my girlfriend!” Fenner comes over to say hi. Sullivan presents her with a rolled-up NASCAR poster. She unfurls it, discovering that it has been autographed by her favorite drivers. “Mister NYC!” she says, beaming. She gives him a grateful hug.
“Found it by dumb luck,” he says. “She’s always raving about Jimmy Johnson.”
Sullivan goes to the city almost every day. His morning begins at the Tick Tock just after 8 am, because “that’s when the party starts going.” After breakfast, “When the weather’s nice, I whip into Manhattan on the senior citizen’s fare and walk from Port Authority to Times Square just to see what’s going on.” A former executive at Chase Bank who uses his expired Chase ID card to get into museums for free, Sullivan is known at the Tick Tock for collecting autographs. He goes to his car to retrieve a photo of himself with former Giants running back and Today correspondent Tiki Barber.

9:32 am Sweet solitude
Sun streams through the blinds of the booth where Marie Dukes dog-ears the L.L. Bean catalog. She’s wearing a chic black-and-white print sweater and a black-and-white striped scarf. A corporate attorney, she’s enjoying a rare moment of solitude.
“I particularly like this diner for basic things—they keep the sugar in big containers, so I don’t have to open a bunch of packets for my tea.” Dukes admits to being fussy. She carries her own Jasmine tea bags, and she orders her veggie omelet without mushrooms. (When it arrives with mushrooms, she sends it back.)  She says she enjoys simple foods like eggs and toast, and often steers friends to diners rather than to a theme chain “like PF Chang’s.”

10:56 am The second coming of the Goldsteins
True to her word, Arlene Goldstein—along with her husband, Maurice, their sons and their sons’ wives, and two grandchildren—return for breakfast. Somehow they all fit at one big round table. “I should have my mail sent here,” Arlene quips.

11:10 am The reunion
Vivian Condolios and Marina Apolito-Gremanis were close friends growing up in Wallington. They lost touch, but recently reconnected at a baby shower given by a mutual friend. This morning they are getting together for the first time in sixteen years. Each agrees the other looks the same as ever.
“Thank God!” chortles Marina.
They chose the Tick Tock for their reunion breakfast and can barely contain their excitement. It’s a slightly scandalous choice, because Marina’s husband owns The Colonial Diner in nearby Lyndhurst.
“I go there every friggin’ day, I’m his best customer,” she says, laughing. “But I tell him when I go to the Tick Tock—just to get him jealous.”

12:59 pm Oh, Canada!

“A diner is a good place for a psychology student to hang out,” says Montclair State junior Morgan Bardall, 21, who’s here with his friend Sara Sciabbarrasi, 18. On Friday night, Bardell hosted a party that rocked on until 5:30 am. Afterwards, Sciabbarrasi helped him “fix a futon and clean up for two hours.” So taking her to breakfast “was the least I could do.”
What better place to take her than the Tick Tock, with its international reputation? Its what? Bardell can back up the claim. He says that when his mom was in Canada once she mentioned to some locals that she was from New Jersey. “Oh, then you must know the Tick Tock,” they responded.

2:50 pm Keeping up with the Applebees

Back for the second time in less than 24 hours are Pat and Brian Obolsky. They’ve been coming here for about 35 years—since they were teenagers, considering that Pat is 52 and Brian 51. They were already regulars when Steve Nicoles (Frank’s father) bought the Tick Tock in 1987 with Bill Vasilopoulos (Jimmy’s father) and Alex Sgourdos (George Spyropoulos’ father-in-law). The Obolskys amounted to a welcoming committee back then, and have remained friends of Steve’s all these years.
They slide into a booth with their daughter Kristen, 17, “who’s been coming here since she was in utero,” says Pat. Kristen wants a chicken sandwich with certain accoutrements, but the exact combination is not on the seven-page menu.  Not a problem. The kitchen is very accomodating—for anyone, really—but Kristen can’t resist saying, semi-tongue-in-cheek, “Uncle Steve says I get what I want.”
A senior at nearby Clifton High School, Kristen performs in theatricals at the school, and starred in November’s production of, Cactus Flower. She likes to bring fellow cast members to the Tick Tock.
The Obolskys note with approval the items recently added to the menu—including southwestern egg rolls and a pulled pork sandwich with chipotle mayo. “That’s all stuff they have at Applebee’s but now they have it all here,” says Pat.

3:55 pm The smell of strawberries
Music is piped into the diner 24 hours a day. The Christmas carols have already begun. Now Suzanne Vega’s 1981 hit “Tom’s Diner” comes over the speakers. The kitchen is busy turning out disco fries, that Jersey staple slathered with gravy and melted cheese. Fifty gallon drums of peeled potatoes soaking in water (to keep them from turning brown) hog a corner of the kitchen, awaiting their delicious destiny. Downstairs, the baking is done for the day. The walk-in cooler smells like strawberries.
5:30 pm How they joined the Tick Tock family
For the third time in 24 hours, the Goldsteins arrive for a meal. It’s hard to imagine craving that much diner food in so short a time, but for these two the Tick Tock isn’t just a place to order food, but one where they feel connected.

“In 1994, when we’d only known the owners for a short time, there was a death in their family,” recounts Arlene. “I said, ‘Just show me how to use the register. Maurice will host. You go to the funeral.’ They did, and we stayed here for several hours, and that’s how we became part of the family.”

She pauses between spoonfuls of matzo ball soup. Then she adds, “I didn’t cook when I owned a Dairy Queen, and I’m not going to start now. When I invite people over for dinner, they know to meet me here.”

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