The Great Jersey City Diner Eat-Off

FacebookEmailPrintFriendlyLinkedInPinterestDiggStumbleUponReddit

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.

  • Rob

    Nice work, though I don’t consider any establishment that isn’t open 24 hours to be a legitimate diner (*looking at you, Brownstone and Miss America*). Wish that had been at least commented on, if not taken into account in the grading system.

  • Anthony

    Are you kidding me ? You must be joking right? The Flamingo is always out of everything, they’re eggs are rubbery, and selection is very limited. The last time i was there i ordered a Cheesesteak and they served it to me on regular white bread!!! The brownstone is so much better, fresher, CLEANER and you can choose each dish about 20 different ways!

    Flamingo should get a D, thats is why its always empty

  • Alan Wright

    How can I say this without any interest in clarity… fortune cookie style.

    OK. I figured it out: “A dubious methodology begets only unconvincing results.”

  • http://darrendeicide.com Darren Deicide

    Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa…..whoa…..How did Miss America get the same score as Coach House Diner? Last time I checked Coach House Diner took a steaming hot crap all over Miss America.

  • http://www.jerseybeat.com Jim Testa

    Didn’t Guy Fieri visit the Miss America on Drivers Drive-Ins & Dives on the Food Network and rave about the cooking? I remember being highly dubious of that episode – in fact, I haven’t really trusted the show ever since. The few times I’ve eaten at the Miss America were misadventures more than memorable dining experiences.

    In my admittedly limited experience (I haven’t been to every diner on your list,) , the Coach House is the clear winner. I’ll give the Flamingo another shot. But Miss America? no way.

  • http://darrendeicide.com Darren Deicide

    Coach House has a full liquor bar with impressive beer on tap (Guiness’s are only $4 on Thursday!) and an all-you-can-eat salad bar that’ll knock any carnivore’s socks off for having way more than just salad. On top of that, it’s difficult to leave them without taking home leftovers and the menu is boggling in its breadth of choices. Miss America is open if you’re lucky and gives you small portions. I’ll concede that it has a ton of great Jersey diner kitsch, but food should be the final determinant of quality in any restaurant. Flamingo…well, as the man said above, there’s a reason it’s almost always empty.

    By the way, I’m thoroughly amused at how adamant everyone here is. Only can New Jerseyans be so righteously indignant about a diner survey. Hey yo!

  • http://www.thursdaynightsmackdown.com michelle @ TNS

    darren, i’d be disappointed if people *weren’t* adamant.

  • Brian

    Thanks for calling out the VIP, Sopranos location shots notwithstanding. Be glad you didn’t get salad so wilted that it was more brown than green, or French toast made with stale bread — no third strike necessary for me. How do they stay open? Why is the one diner within walking distance of my place far and away the worst one around?

    On the positive side, Al’s is only a long walk, and it’s worth renting a ZipCar to go down to Miss America. Also, while it’s certainly not a diner, the burgers at Park Tavern should fit in here somehow.

  • JerseyCity Born

    The Flamingo ? Are you sure that you are from Jersey…. The only thing that the Flamingo has over these diners is location…. The Flamingo doesn’t match up of these places…. I’m sorry, but maybe you reevaluate for list again…. Maybe you got the names mixed up……

  • Stepan

    Definately not surprised about The Jersey City Diner. Think it gives our city a bad name. I ate there once with 4 other people. Only one liked their food in the end (no, not me). I got lasagna, tasted like out of a can.

  • Erik Lindstrom

    Thanks for this story — will have to check these diners out (the better ones, not the crappy ones).

  • Alan Wright

    Ignore this survey. (I’m looking at you, Erik Lindstrom).

    The author seems to be making apologies for shabby, unclean greasy spoon trolley cars and puts a premium on waitress “sass” for no particular reason.

    So, I listed below the summaries of what Yelp.com tells us about these diners as of today. That might tell you something about which ones folks choose to frequent. I’m here to help. But, I didn’t hyperlink each one. You’ll have to search for them yourself. When you do you can look at the rating details to see what the vote distribution looks like.

    So, what will you trust? Idiosyncratic tastes of a journalist and her friends, or democracy in action?

    From Yelp.com:

    * The Miss America (322 West Side Ave.) – 4 stars based on 4 reviews.
    * The VIP (175 Sip Ave.) – 3 stars based on 19 reviews.
    * The Jersey City Diner (405 Route 440) – 4 stars based only one 1 review.
    * The Brownstone (426 Jersey Ave.) – 4 stars based on 91 reviews.
    * The Coach House (921 JFK Blvd., North Bergen) – 4 stars based on 43 reviews.
    * Al’s (873 Communipaw Ave.) – 3 stars based on 10 reviews.
    * The Flamingo (31 Montgomery St.) – 3 stars based on 13 reviews.
    * The Liberty Park Cafe (14 Burma Rd.) – 3 stars based on only 1 review.

    Also, a few which weren’t surveyed for this story:

    * Top’s Diner (East Newark) – 4.5 stars based on 37 reviews.
    * Malibu Diner (Hoboken) – 3 stars based on 29 reviews.
    * Medical Center Luncheonette [Healy’s fave](641 Montgomery Street) – 3.5 stars based on only 2 reviews.

  • Rob

    And by logical extension of AW’s logic above, all food/restaurant criticism should be disregarded and replaced with entirely unscientific, self-selecting report blurbs from Yelp. Because when I think “democracy in action” i think web-reviews on Yelp.com.

    Lighten up, Alan. It’s a cute piece of humorous, slightly snarky opinion writing. And pretends to be nothing else.

  • Pay to Play

    It’s certainly ironic for anyone to call Yelp, whose business plan seems to be mostly based on extorting local businesses, “democracy in action.”

    http://www.google.com/search?q=yelp%20%2B%20extortion&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

  • Rob

    Pay to Play, FTW. :-)

    Wonder whose low ranking has AW’s dander up… *cough*Brownstone*cough*

  • C M D

    My standard order in any diner is always the burger in one of its various configurations or the turkey club. I shy away from anything more exotic at a diner for fear of what I might get. There are few things sadder in life than the disappointment and remorse of having to eat a poor menu choice that you have paid good money for. I suppose eggs or pancakes are a fairly safe bet too but my bar closing 4AM breakfast days are long past. Anyway, I must say that I have not had an outstanding burger or turkey club in many years at any of the 4 diners on the list that I have frequented. They are always fair to OK. Why? Because they are diners, diners are all the same! They are DINERS! Everything depends on the guy who showed up to work the griddle that night. And another thing, is there an unwritten agreement among diner owners that you must all serve sub par fries? My one steadfast criteria for judging a diner meal is the pickle. This is a deal breaker. It must be a high quality Kosher half dill or garlic. DO NOT hand me a crappy Vlasic spear or crinkle cut slice and god help you if there is no pickle at all on my plate.
    On a side note: Stepan, one does not judge a diner on its lasagna. In fact, one would be well advised to avoid any pasta dish at a diner. Diners are not run by Italians, we all know this. Any local pizza joint can crush a diner in the pasta category.

  • http://www.jerseycityindependent.com Jon Whiten

    @ C M D – you’re right on the pickle test — it is KEY.

  • Kathy

    I’m not surprised that the Jersey City Diner scored so low. When the Margetis family sold it a few years ago, it went straight downhill. When it was the Colonette, we were there several times a week, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It had great food, great staff, and the owners were great people — and regulars felt like family. The new ownership renovated, changed the menu, and changed the recipes. You stopped seeing familiar faces in the other booths, and a lot of the staff left. RIP, Colonette.

  • Alan Wright

    It’s a bit late now, but… no, I do not think we should disregard all food criticism. That is not the extension of my illogic. I was simply showing that a larger, perhaps non-representative sample produces drastically different results. Since nobody suggests Yelp has used extortion with regard to Jersey City-area diners, that concern is not relevant here.

    I am not the biggest fan of Brownstone, as I think their prices are too high *and* their portions are too large *and* sometimes the wait is not worth it. But, they certainly have good consistency, selection, and cleanliness. I guess I prefer Tops and The Coachhouse, which I find are more reasonable in all senses. On a separate note, I heard that The Flamingo is under new ownership. So, perhaps they will be changing a little bit.

    To be honest… I’m not contented with many JC eateries anymore.