Diners occupy a specific place in the Jersey imagination. One’s connection to a diner isn’t just about food, though that’s part of it. Sitting in a pleather booth, attachments are forged in sugar and salt. There are over-easy eggs and short-stack pancakes, served the same way every time. There are Greek omelets, cheese fries and French dips, savory just like you need them to be. Somewhere along the way, those dishes become part of who we are.
More than that, diner love is about a human experience. It’s a welcome greeting from a friendly face. You know each other, but you don’t. It’s the right kind of distance. Diner love is nodding to neighbors as you walk to your table, then making coffee rings on paper placemats at midnight.
Returning to a diner that has been lost to time, then, is like going back to a childhood neighborhood you haven’t seen in decades. Maybe your house is still there, but it’s canary yellow instead of green. Maybe it’s gone, replaced by “luxury” townhomes. In high school, Olga’s was an obligatory stop when we’d drive from Barnegat to Philly for concerts. Pulling into the parking lot, there was something about that cursive red font, the word diner scrawled across a changeable sky. My now husband Keith and I were deep in “dating round one,” as he calls it. We’d laugh and stuff our faces and feel the stir of late nights far from home.
Nostalgia dies hard. So, it took me months to visit the new Olga’s Diner, a technically unrelated business about a mile from the original. Paying homage in that red cursive font, it seeks to rekindle that old Olga’s magic—and in many ways, it does. The scent of dark roast coffee still hits you the moment you walk through the door. The pastry case is full of treats, piped tufts of meringue reaching skyscraper tall. The menu is expansive, if upgraded with a vegan section.
Yet for all of the echoes, this is a different place. Maybe that’s okay. The Olga’s this replaces (our Olga’s) was technically the diner’s third location, its lineage stretching back to Camden in the 1940s. “It never even occurred to me that there would have been an Olga’s before it,” my husband said, recounting how he and a friend once skipped school to drive there for a WMMR live broadcast before a Rush show. “We weren’t going to the show. We went to Olga’s and announced on the radio that we skipped school for it. In retrospect…not the best plan.”
New Olga’s is a new kind of diner, as if the old space was reimagined in Vegas or AC. Recessed lighting in the ceiling cycles from red tones to blue. Retro lamps and wall-to-wall windows fill the room with bright light. At first, that newness made me apprehensive, as did an electronica soundtrack that intersected oddly with the Sunday after-church crowd. As we settled in, however, the musical vibe skewed ’80s (Hall and Oates, Tears for Fears, Wham!), folks lined up at the register, and our sweet server Hellen brought us thick white mugs of Lacas coffee. I relaxed. It may be repackaged, but Olga’s reincarnated hits plenty of diner high notes.
Given the nature of this visit, I obviously ordered like I was 16. The prime rib sandwich in the “hand-crafted” section is essentially an upgraded French dip, steamy side of bouillon included. Fries were crisp, the horseradish sauced popped, and provolone melted off a sesame roll tinged dark by the broiler. It was all too much, exactly how I wanted it to be. The sandwich also reminded me that I am, sadly, no longer 16. I couldn’t finish it—not even close.
Little touches in the kitchen make a difference. The home fries with my husband’s biscuits and gravy special were par-cooked before they were fried, rendering a kind balance between soft and golden-crispy. The white gravy had a whisper of sweetness that offset the savory sausage. Even the vegetable medley that we ordered in a flimsy attempt at virtue was sautéed lightly in garlic and olive oil, not steamed into mush.
In no time, we were carb-loading and laughing planning a next visit. A new Olga’s tradition was even born. If you add just the right amount of half-and-half to your coffee, it’s possible to perfectly match the caramel tone of the pleather booth. Food meets art.
Before the Olga’s at the Route 73 circle was demolished, I visited with a camera. In a parking lot full of broken glass, I caught my last view of that fading red script, parts of broken and revealing the bare lightbulbs behind it. It was bittersweet, the way memory can be. Yet I leave the new Olga’s hopeful that it will endure and carve its way into the psyche of a new generation.
Olga’s Diner; 200 NJ Route 73 N., Marlton; 856-452-5966; Open Sunday-Thursday 7a.m.-10p.m., Friday-Saturday 7a.m.-11p.m.Click here to leave a comment