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The Best Diners in New Jersey

29
Jul
2013

You can’t escape diners in Jersey. They’re everywhere — major highways, country roads, big cities, small towns — about 600 diners in all.

When I wrote my book “Jersey Diners” (first published in 1996, with a paperback edition in 2006), I discovered that diners are in fully half of the state’s municipalities.

Which means if there isn’t a diner in the town you live in, drive to the next town.

If you shudder at the mere sight of a diner, you should consider moving to another state.
Every Jerseyan, it seems, has a favorite diner, and good luck trying to convince someone yours is better. Picking the very best out of 600 diners seems a Herculean challenge and foolhardy task.

Which is why I accepted the project, cholesterol count be damned.

Backed by my own diner know-how and 300-plus reader recommendations on nj.com, I ended up visiting 55 diners in 11 days. I hit all 21 counties and drove 2,827 miles. I did not once go into cardiac arrest.

You may not have heard of several of these diners. Many popular diners that show up on best-diner lists will not be found here. I took on this project with an open mind and an even more open stomach. I ate anonymously, paid for all the food, and moved on.

It was not all fine dining. Diners are no different than restaurants in general — you can get a great meal one night, a bad one the next. There were some meals I’m still trying to forget — brown salad greens, sour-tasting cheesecake, greenish-sauced chicken pot pies. And why would you ever put cheese atop a crab cake?

But there were many memorable meals, often in surprising places. You probably won’t agree with most of my picks, but that’s okay. Jerseyans don’t agree on much, and when it comes to food, even less so.

But in the diner capital of the world, debating where you can get the best breakfast or burgers or salads or desserts is always tasty food for thought.

So grab your knife and fork and dig into our Best of NJ: Diner-Palooza all this week.

Did you know New Jersey has more diners than any other state? Find out what makes New Jersey Diner Central.

Today we reveal our pick for best diner in the state and over the next couple of days we’ll reveal our picks for Best New Diner, Best Classic Diner, Best Late-Night Diner, Best Waitresses, Best Breakfast, Best Burger, Best Steak, Best Salad and the Coolest Looking Diner in the state.

 The Best Diner in New Jersey

The Americana Diner in East Windsor — the state’s best — is not your average neighborhood diner.

Servers — known here as “captains” — never go into the kitchen; that’s the job of “runners.” “Expeditors” act as liaisons between the kitchen and dining room, which is decorated in a ’50s-retro style. There’s also a cool lounge and outdoor patio.

The menu? Well, you sure won’t find Vietnamese salmon sandwiches, fried goat cheese/roasted beet salads and sausage and orecchiette at your local greasy spoon.

“Our customers realize a hamburger is not just a hamburger here,” says owner Constantine Katsifis, sitting in a booth on a busy weekday morning. “We make our own rolls. We put a vine-ripened tomato” with the dish.

Only imported Greek olive oil and vinegar are used in the Greek salad. Homemade orange marmalade is served with toast.

“If you want grape jelly, I’ll give it to you — reluctantly,” the 42-year-old Katsifis says, smiling.

There has been a diner on this site since the 1950s — Big Eddie’s. It was renovated in the 1970s in a Mediterranean diner-style — stone facade, mansard roof — and became known as the Copper Bell. In 1983, it was renamed the Americana, and in 1995 underwent a serious design makeover. Out went the Mediterranean diner, in came a stylish, Art Deco-inspired one.

Americana Hospitality Group, of which the Americana is part, also owns the Skylark Fine Diner & Lounge in Edison, the Skylark on the Hudson Diner in Jersey City, and the Pines Manor banquet facility in Edison. The Americana diner does more business than the more heralded Skylark in Edison.

The Americana makes the bread for all the diners; a tour of the East Windsor location leads one through a series of ground-level and subterranean rooms — prep rooms, bakery, butcher room, even a laundry room. The head chef is Dan Cummings; Katsifis sees his chefs as “food hunters,” people who search for the highest quality produce and meats. About 70 percent of the diner’s produce is locally sourced.

The 350-seat Americana has switched to a healthier menu in recent years, and that just doesn’t mean more salads. In June, the diner began using grass-fed meat only. Instead of French fries, you can get chickpea red bean salad, roasted beet salad or mesclun greens. French fry consumption is down dramatically in recent years because customers have healthier alternatives. Home fries are now served with a roasted tomato.

Katsifis orders a Greek salad from his kitchen and when it arrives, he meticulously breaks it down. Imported Greek olive oil and vinegar. The feta is from France; Greek feta, he says, crumbles too easily. Heirloom tomatoes. Cucumbers. Sea salt, pepper and oregano.

The youthful diner owner mixes the ingredients, looking pleased with the results.
“Magic happens in the bowl,” he says with a smile.

Peter Genovese – The  Star-Leger, Photos by Cathy Miller