They dot the New Jersey landscape. Gleaming beacons of shiny chrome, their neon lights beckoning you to come inside and sample from their mouthwatering menu. The portions are large, the ambience is electric with a joyful din of noise — teens laughing over milkshakes, workers enjoying a steaming cup before heading off to work, retired couples enjoying the house special.
Welcome to the quintessential New Jersey diner, a Garden State tradition that dates back to 1913 when Jerry Mahoney took what was then the rage of eateries, a horse-drawn lunch wagon, and made it stationary, creating the first true diner.
Jersey residents quickly fell in love with diners — their meals were hot, delicious, and inexpensive. The portions were more than filling. Best of all, they stayed open into the wee morning hours, sometimes 24 hours.
Today, there is no denying that New Jersey is the diner capital of the world with over 500 such eateries across its highways and byways. Some of the diners remain unchanged and still have that quintessential chrome exterior, neon lights blazing, a line of swivel stools lining the main counter, and cozy booths ringing the walls next to large plate glass windows, while others have become more brick and mortar dining experiences. Either way, they still offer up delicious menus and good times.
Since I am a native Jerseyite but have long since moved away, I have made it a ritual on my return visits to make my first stop — and last with a few in between — a visit to a Jersey diner. In no particular order, let me introduce you to nine of my favorites.
1. Stateline Diner
Our first stop is in northern New Jersey on the state line with New York in my hometown of Mahwah — the Stateline Diner on Route 17.
The Stateline Diner’s menu is huge, not only offering your standard American fare of hamburgers and fries, but also full pages of incredibly delicious specialty items.
Their breakfast lineup has 21 different omelets ranging from your basic American cheese or Western omelet to the unique flavors of the corned beef or Nova Scotia lox and onion omelet.
For dinner, there are salads (one of my favorites is the BBQ salmon salad), wraps like the chicken Milanese, and of course, sandwiches. For a little Southern flavor Jersey style, try Stateline’s fried shrimp po’ boy with Creole Remoulade sauce.
- Breakfast of Champions: Western Omelet
- Delightful Dinner: Chicken Milanese Wrap
- Something Special: Fried Shrimp Po’ Boy with Creole Remoulade Sauce
2. Paul’s Family Diner
Some diners have staying power. Take Paul’s Family Diner on Route 46 in Mountain Lakes for instance. Paul’s first opened their doors in 1947, as they say, “back when the road was only a dirt road into town.”
Open year-round, 7 days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. (including holidays), Paul’s lives up to its name as a family diner offering something sure to delight all ages and tastes.
The menu is eclectic. Local and personal breakfast favorites include the Farmer’s Omelet with bacon, mushrooms, onions, and cheese and the Nutella banana French toast.
On the burger side, the unique Trenton Burger stands out. It’s 100% Angus beef topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, egg, and a truly Jersey treat — the tangy flavor of Taylor Ham. There has been a war waging in the state for generations about Taylor Ham. In the North, it’s called by the brand name, Taylor Ham. In the South, it’s called pork roll. Either way, it’s the best.
And talk about fresh — their lengthy salad menu features locally grown produce in season (it is the Garden State, after all).
For an appetizer, try a Jersey favorite: Disco Fries — French fries with mozzarella cheese and brown gravy.
- Breakfast of Champions: Nutella Banana French Toast
- Delightful Dinner: Trenton Burger
- Something Special: Disco Fries
3. Amy’s Omelette House
Heading down to the Jersey Shore, we pay a visit to Amy’s Omelette House in Long Branch on Ocean Boulevard. This location is the oldest of the three Amy’s locations. The other two are in Cherry Hill and Burlington. Different locations, same great menu.
If you haven’t guessed it, Amy’s is known for its omelets — over 200 varieties using nine different cheeses, nine different vegetables, and four different meat combinations. If you can dream it, Amy’s can make it.
But don’t let the name fool you. The menu is full of other delicious lunch and dinner offerings as well.
- Breakfast of Champions: Traveler Omelet
- Lunch: Reuben Melt
- Something Special: Amy’s Salad
4. Court House Diner
Cape May Court House
Since Sam and Helen Mallous first opened their doors in 1997, the Court House Diner on N. Main Street in Cape May Court House has been delighting locals with their breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu.
Topping the list to get your morning started is their sweet and gooey caramel banana crunch pancakes topped with cinnamon crumbs, bananas, and a perfectly sweet caramel to drizzle on top to your liking.
You just don’t see many restaurants offer one of my favorite salads anymore, the Waldorf, but the Court House does with a twist: their tangy Waldorf salad chicken salad melt with — you guessed it — chicken salad plus walnuts, dried cranberries, apples, and fontina cheese all on sourdough bread.
And for dinner, come hungry and tackle the Mile High Meatloaf, a tower of delicious, tangy meatloaf with a pile of mashed potatoes, onion rings, and gravy.
First time online orders for pickup get 10 percent off their meal — not a bad deal.
- Breakfast of Champions: Caramel Banana Crunch Pancakes
- Delightful Dinner: Mile High Meatloaf
- Something Special: Waldorf Salad Chicken Salad Melt
5. Majestic Diner
The Majestic Diner in Ramsey on Route 17 isn’t your ordinary diner. Oh, sure, they have the classics like meatloaf, buttermilk Belgian waffles, and Reubens, but dig a little deeper into the menu and discover crabmeat stuffed sole, sesame-crusted salmon, lobster ravioli, and many more dishes that will surprise and please your palate.
- Breakfast of Champions: Buttermilk Belgian Waffles
- Delightful Dinner: Reuben Sandwich
- Something Special: Sesame-Crusted Salmon
6. Tops Diner
When it comes to diners, Tops Diner on Passaic Avenue in Harrison is literally the tops. The diner is routinely voted the #1 in the region year after year. The doors first opened in 1938 as the Tops Grill and became an immediate local favorite. The Golemis family purchased the diner from its original owner in 1972 and recently completed a four-year, $10 million renovation.
Forget the neon lights that ring the building. Once you walk inside you will be amazed at the renovation that has taken place — 15,000-square-feet of dining space with warm and inviting wood accents. The centerpiece is a huge black marble counter with 18-stools and rows of wide, comfortable bench seating.
One thing remains the same — the incredible and delectable menu that offers standard diner fare (their eggs Benedict is remarkable and the meatloaf dowsed in mushroom gravy is so good) to something more upscale like the rigatoni arrabiatta with basil, onion, parmesan, and spicy Calabrian sauce or ahi tuna tacos.
Tops also offers a full selection of cocktails, beer, wine, and spirits.
- Breakfast of Champions: Eggs Benedict
- Delightful Dinner: Meatloaf
- Something Special: Rigatoni Arrabiatta
7. Doo Wop Diner
As its name implies, the Doo Wop harkens back to the 1950s with a statue of Betty Boop dressed in quintessential waitress attire greeting you. Black and white checker floors and wall borders shine, and red vinyl booths and stools are waiting for you to take a seat and order up.
There is nothing pretentious about their menu. Delicious and hot, the diner serves up classic breakfast, lunch, and dinner items with just enough of a twist to please every taste plus a classic soda fountain menu of shakes, malts, and floats.
After a long day on the beach or cruising the boardwalk, the Doo Wop is the perfect place to end your day. Just remember, it can be jam-packed in the summer.
- Breakfast of Champions: Blueberry Hill Pancakes
- Delightful Dinner: Eye Opener (Burger)
- Something Special: The Grasshopper (Dessert)
8. Tick Tock Diner
When one thinks of a quintessential New Jersey diner, you can’t help but picture the diners in the old movies of the 1940s: staying open all night, an early morning fog dampens the asphalt causing the neon lights to create a shimmering light show on the wet pavement.
The Tick-Tock Diner on Route 3 in Clifton is one of those. Since it first opened its doors in 1948, the diner has been open with few exceptions every day, 24/7.
While the Tick-Tock does offer lighter portions, they are best known for their motto, “Eat Heavy.” The portions are generous, the prices affordable, and the taste — delicious.
Local favorites include the Mick Jagger (who once dined at the Tick-Tock before a concert at MetLife Stadium) with Taylor Ham, cheese, and fried eggs and their famous mac and cheese balls called the Great Balls of Fire! complete with Sriracha ranch dipping sauce.
And don’t forget to finish with a slice of cake that is touted as the best in the state.
- Breakfast of Champions: Mick Jagger
- Local Favorite: Caprese Burger
- Something Special: Great Balls of Fire!
9. Jefferson Diner
The diner tradition continues at the Jefferson Diner on Bowling Green Parkway in Lake Hopatcong.
Although relatively new (the Seretis family opened its doors in 1985), the Jefferson has dazzled patrons with its retro diner exterior, the chrome, and the neon, but what really draws them in is their menu, all boasting generous portions like the piled high (and I mean really high) Russian square paninis loaded with sliced turkey, sauerkraut, melted Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing, a lineup of what are touted as the “largest club sandwiches in NJ”, and amazing Greek offerings including Donna’s Famous Moussaka Platter.
Top it off with a glass from their amazing wine menu and you have (pardon the pun) the recipe for success. The Jefferson has made many appearances on television shows including the Food Network’s Unwrapped and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. You can even see host Guy Fieri’s 1967 Camaro at the diner.
- Breakfast of Champions: Shores Cake French Toast
- Delightful Dinner: Russian Square Panini
- Something Special: Donna’s Famous Moussaka Platter