A Slice of Home: Finding Peace in Jersey Diners Past & Present

An editor reflects on putting down her own roots in the Garden State.

A collage illustration featuring an old Swingle's Diner and Mary Swingle, whose brothers ran the business.

Illustration by Clare Nicholas; original diner photo courtesy of Elaine Swingle

Whenever anyone asks me where I’m from, my involuntary reaction is a mild identity crisis. I spent my early childhood in Southern California, my adolescence in the Philly suburbs, and my college and first-job years in Delaware. I have never known the luxury of providing a tidy response to this question.

The answer that often feels the most accurate, however, is New Jersey. It’s where my family on both sides originated—where my grandparents lived, loved, built businesses and raised my parents. I’ve cherished holidays in Basking Ridge and family reunions on LBI since birth. With its proximity to sacred childhood memories, dear loved ones and the most dazzling city in the world, New Jersey has always held a certain unshakable promise of home.

I had arrived at a series of crossroads when I finally decided to put down my own roots here in late 2018. Though the transition was far from seamless, the only remorse I felt was for not having moved sooner. I worried about time I felt I’d wasted. What had I been waiting for?

Something else that long predated my official Garden State residency is a deep, undying love for local greasy spoons. As any New Jerseyan well knows, diners are a kind of home themselves: welcoming, unpretentious, reliable. I also happen to think they’re wildly romantic, in all their earthy, real-life-happens-here glory: comforting as a ’90s rom-com starring Meg Ryan and, sometimes, in the right lighting and circumstance, cinematic as a Springsteen song.

What I hadn’t fully grasped until settling here was just how deeply diners run in my blood. I’d known that my maternal grandmother, Mary (pictured above), had three brothers who ran a local diner business, starting in the 1950s. But after a bit of research, I realized Swingle Diners Inc., helmed by my great-uncle Joe Swingle, had in fact been a fairly revolutionary force in the diner landscape—not just in Jersey, but throughout the country. Some of those restaurants, I was giddy to learn, remain standing today (albeit under different ownership).

I set out on a small pilgrimage to visit a few diners with Swingle’s roots. At a cozy Green Brook spot, twinkle lights glow and charming ’70s hits waft through the air. The waitress chats with me as if we’re old friends, calls me “baby” and breaks into song with a waiter as if on cue. The evening seems all but orchestrated for my sentimental heart—until I come to the sinking realization that there are no tangible tributes to my family to be found. No reverential photos, framed menus or vintage matchbooks adorn the walls. I linger a few moments before stepping out into the blustery dark—a little sad, but also warm and full.

On another night, soon after signing my first lease on a New Jersey apartment, I pull into a diner—this one with no affiliation to my family—to order a foolproof 10 pm go-to: chicken tenders and matzo ball soup. The place is nearly empty, so I sit tentatively at the counter. “You close at 11, right?” I ask a waiter when at last he appears. “Yeah, you got time!” he assures me, grinning. “Relax!”

And, gratefully, I do.

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