The Great Jersey City Diner Eat-Off

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Photos: Melanie McLean

Editor’s note: Food writer Michelle Weber spent the winter consuming massive amounts of greasy-spoon fare in a methodical process designed to uncover the best all-around diner in Jersey City.

Her findings, published here, also appear in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of NEW magazine.

Are you originally from New Jersey? Do you love diners?

If the answer to the first question is yes and to the second, no, then you are most likely not actually a native New Jerseyan and should confront your parents about your true origins.

New Jersey is the land of the diner, of greasy little trolley cars with sticky tables, of waitresses with stunningly lacquered bouffants who call you “hon,” of places where you can get a burger and a waffle with chocolate ice cream at 3 in the morning without an askance look.

It’s difficult to find a highway or byway in New Jersey where you can swing a dead cat without hitting a diner. There are over 600 of them in our 150 mile-by-70 mile home — more than any other state. Jersey City is lucky enough to be home to seven of them, of varying quality but each with something to commend it.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Which should I frequent?” Relax, we’re here to help.

I, along with a panel of companions, faced down each diner (plus one barely in North Bergen!) in turn, horrifying servers citywide with the sheer quantity of greasy-spoon food consumed in a methodical process designed to uncover the best all-around diner in Jersey City.

Diner menus often read like novellas, but only the early bird devotees pay attention to the pages with the Dover Sole specials. The rest of us confine ourselves to the breakfast and sandwich pages with a peek into the dessert case. And on those pages, there are some things that every diner should be able to churn out with consistent quality.

  • An Omelet
  • Pancakes
  • A Tuna Melt
  • A Bacon Cheeseburger
  • A Hot Open Sandwich (We chose turkey with gravy, which gives you bonus mashed potatoes and, if you’ve been good, stuffing. This sometimes requires a detour to the “entree” section.)
  • Coffee
  • A Chocolate Milkshake
  • Lemon Meringue Pie

(Yes, I know there are more things a diner should do well — the patty melt, grilled cheese, a good deli sandwich — but there’s only so much the digestive system can take at once.)

But diners aren’t just about food; they’re also about atmosphere. Thus, during our post-meal caucus, we also discussed décor and server sass. Cleanliness was also taken into account, but in a more nuanced way: a slightly sticky counter is not necessarily a detriment in an old-school diner, while crust on a fork is a deal-breaker no matter how classic you are. Diners should also be relatively inexpensive.

With clear(ish) guidelines established, we began the Great Jersey City Diner Eat-Off. Eight diners enter. One diner leaves.

THE CONTENDERS

a lapsed Catholic, lapsed vegetarian and lapsed lawyer, currently working in communications for the nonprofit sector and happily consuming bacon again. A highly experienced eater and Jersey City resident since 2001, she is the founder and editor of Thursday Night Smackdown, a food blog beloved by dozens.