Us Jersey folks cannot resist the lure of a diner. The Chit Chat in West Orange, which opened on July 31, did its best to tease the many commuters who passed by what was a building site for somewhere in the range of two years. Owner Gus Katsanos, who also owns the Chit Chat Diner in Hackensack, acknowledged the lengthy construction period with a note on the diner’s Facebook page the day after opening:
“They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, and believe us when we say that we know [the Chit Chat] definitely took a lot longer than Rome, but we are finally here!”
As the building took shape—turrets rose, dark stone clad the exterior, and, finally, bronze statues of children and animals at play appeared around manicured landscape—the talk among the diner-chattering classes became more frenzied.
This was not to be some glitzy retro, red-and-silver palace like the Tick Tock on Route 3, or have the intimate railroad-car charm of the Summit Diner, nor the mellow Mediterranean-style exterior of the Millburn Diner. The Chit Chat is a fine example of the “If More is Better, then Even More is Best” school of architecture.
In fact, the comment I hear most about the Chit Chat is: “Wow, Did you see Dracula’s castle up on Eagle Rock?” along with: “I think the Addams Family may have opened a diner.”
Most people over the age of 12 that I’ve spoken to don’t think the food is out of the ordinary. Service can vary between smiley and attentive to clumsy and clueless. One Sunday I arrived with my hungry family around 10:30 AM to learn that a table for four would be a 90-minute wait.
The surprising part: People were willing to wait that long.
Maybe it’s the interior that helps the crowds bide their time. You would be forgiven if you thought the Chit Chat was a showroom for MacKenzie-Childs, the designer of homewares famous for a black-and-white checkerboard pattern. The MacKenzie-Childs look is exuberant: As if Alice in Wonderland’s tea party had been held at Elton John’s house. Everything in the restaurant is done on a theatrical scale, with red cardinals hanging from velvet chandelier cord covers, harlequin-style designs on the booths, a multitude of colorful chandeliers made of multi-colored glass, and high-backed chairs, covered in paisley, polka dots and stripes.
The diner also offers what is, on a clear day with the sun setting behind you, a stellar view of New York City. The view is best seen from the parking lot, as every time I’ve been at the diner, the shades have been pulled to keep out the sun (and, unfortunately, the view).
Oh! They serve food, too. Salads (all 20—count ’em) eat like a meal with a multitude of toppings from prosciutto to fried chicken. My daughter approved the crispy chicken tenders and fries. I liked the ones I stole from her plate. Breakfast, the time we were able to get a seat (with only a 15-minute wait for a table), was less successful.
My sausage was overcooked and greasy (but not the good kind of diner-greasy). I was pleased to see biscuits as a breakfast option, but sad to realize they’d been reheated in the microwave and rendered rubbery.
The vast menu takes diners ’round-the-world. The chaos of foods and flavors seem to parallel the decor. Appetizers alone included Pad Thai chicken egg rolls, cheesesteak dumplings, white bean hummus and empanadas. There are tacos, steaks (including a $32.95 aged sirloin), Cuban specials, Middle Eastern dishes and an actual patty melt.
Grandma can have the breaded flounder she came for and you can have the coconut-crusted grouper. There are wraps of all flavors, banh mi and, after much searching on the menu, I found a little box that offered—there they were!—grilled cheese and tuna-salad sandwiches.
This is a menu to read before you get to the restaurant, just to get a head start on decision-making.
There are over a dozen varieties of pancakes, one crazier than the next—like the Pine-Nana Coco-Nuts, which is coconut pancakes with roasted macadamia nuts, pineapple and banana.
Perhaps, for a light morning snack, you’d prefer the lump crab truffle mac-and-cheese with eggs and prosciutto? Or just half a cantaloupe with some cottage cheese, which refreshingly is not referred to as the diet plate.
All of it comes literally and figuratively at a high price. The menu is surprisingly expensive if you come expecting diner fare, and the vastness of offerings means quality isn’t always commensurate with quantity. There is no way a restaurant can produce all those items, every time, to a decent standard.
After my first visit I was pretty much stumped. Why would people be willing to wait hours for a table at the Chit Chat? Is it the view? It can’t be solely because there’s a bar (although surely that helps in this mostly BYO state).
I guess when you come down to it, you don’t necessarily go to a diner for great food. You go for comforting food. You go to be spoiled by choice, and you go because you can have French toast or a cheeseburger deluxe whether it’s 9 AM or noon.
One especially prescient 16-year-old I know explained why she was keen to visit.
She didn’t care that the food wasn’t great. She didn’t mind the long wait. Nope, she said: “It looks fun inside.” (Her actual words were, “It’s this bizarre-looking castle thing on top of a hill with weird décor. The thought of drinking a milkshake in such a strange place pleases me.”)
Turns out the Chit Chat isn’t a diner. It’s a diner event. You could as easily find the Chit Chat at a Universal Studios theme park as you could in West Orange. The truth is, even with my misgivings about the food and the cost, my kids and I had a jolly time and I’d go back; as long as there isn’t a line out the door.
Aww, dammit, I’ll admit it: the place got to me.
Something about the nutty décor, something about how happy my daughter and I were that random night we stopped by.
Sure, they could work on making the pancakes fluffier and the biscuits less bouncy, but they won my heart when—during the snowstorm that paralyzed North Jersey on November 16—they took in nearly 12 busloads of stranded West Orange kids, nearly 80 in total. They fed them (at no cost), and kept the kids and staff warm and happy until they could finally make it home.
Warm, happy and well-fed: It turns out that is the very essence of the New Jersey diner. Even one that looks like Dracula’s castle.
410 Eagle Rock Avenue