"Diners are part of our landscape and such a part of our daily routine that sometimes they seem invisible and unremarkable,” says Ken Helsby of the Cornelius Low House in Piscataway, referring to the museum’s current exhibition, “Icons of American Culture: History of New Jersey Diners,” on view through June, 2016.
While the mixture of road-side culture in the 18th century Low House that once belonged to an early Dutch settler seems incongruous, it is actually an apt reflection of the Garden State — where diner culture is served up big, and neon signs often spell out Native American and Dutch names.
Using loans from the Passaic County Historical Society, Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson and Wales University, the Paterson Museum, and several individuals, guest curators and diner experts Michael Gabriele (author of the book “History of New Jersey Diners”) and Richard Gutman (author of “American Diners Then and Now”) serve up fact and wit to make a diverting and informative exhibition.
Filling the two-story stone building, the exhibition is more than just panels on the wall, and its seven rooms include recreations of diner settings, signage, tableware, a 3-D interactive station, and a series of oil-on-linen diner paintings by New Jersey artist Mark Oberndorf.
But its overall effectiveness rests in its simple aim to tell a simple tale that — sorry to note — actually starts out of state. According to the curators, “Walter Scott of Providence, Rhode Island, is credited with starting the business that grew into the diner industry. In 1872 he first peddled food from a horse-drawn wagon to night workers after restaurants had closed for the evening.” On Scott’s menu was simple fare: sandwiches, pies, and coffee. Simple too was his lunch wagon model that was copied. That included T. H. Buckley’s “White House Cafes” appearing in New Jersey and other mid-Atlantic states.
New Jersey’s cultural and culinary history was set on the right course on July 3, 1912 — the day Bayonne-based Jerry O’Mahony sold his first horse-drawn lunch wagon to a Jersey City entrepreneur, started his career as one of the premier diner builders of the 20th century, and marked the beginning of the Garden State’s diner history.
According to the curators, “The archetypal ‘diner’ is defined as a roadside restaurant built in a factory” and “began as horse-drawn lunch wagons, operating on city streets at night after other restaurants had closed. As business increased, the diner developed into a long and narrow building that was trucked to its site on wheels, then set up permanently. Originally, diner cooking was done on the grill right behind the counter, and if you took a seat on a stool, you were treated to short-order showmanship at its best. As menus expanded, along with the size of the building, cooking behind the counter became less practical, and kitchen space behind closed doors grew correspondingly.”
The curators point to another expert’s opinion — “The Diners of New England” author Randy Garbin — to say that a diner’s underlying essence starts “with the establishment’s intimate interior physical dimensions, which dictate body language and eye contact. Random seating at the counter, where customers are ‘entertained’ by the cooking activity at the grill, precipitates neighborly small talk. Then there’s the ‘repose’ of booths, where visitors can sit back in a more private setting. It’s this unrehearsed mingle of patrons that creates the magic inside a diner.”
Gabriele and Gutman say that the early diners were located near factories, were open 24 hours to accommodate workers on every shift, and were part of the workingman’s world: “They were run and staffed by men, and the customers were mostly men. Most women didn’t feel comfortable in this environment. As diners moved out of the cities and onto the highways, they became watering holes for everyone on the road, especially truck drivers and traveling salesmen. Most diners had big enough parking lots to handle truckers’ rigs, and matched their serving sizes to sate the truckers’ appetites.”
The new idea of keeping a diner to a specific location was followed by innovation of design, and O’Mahony turned his attention to creating “a deluxe, stationary lunch car with every modern convenience: a veritable ‘Pullman,’ alluding to the fancy dining cars on the railroad. They were built on wheels, but these wheels were only used for moving the diner to its site, where it was permanently installed.”
That innovation was matched by an increase of competing diner manufacturers, and soon there were more than 20 manufacturers and renovators that operated throughout New Jersey during the 20th century. Some include the familiar names Silk City, Paramount, and Mountain View — which built the historic diner on Route 1 in Lawrence that attracted state attention when it was moved in 2014.
Today diner production in the Garden State has all but disappeared, and except for the prefabricated eateries themselves, virtually no trace remains of the process or its creators, note the curators.
Although diner manufacturers competed, they were actually bound by a several underlying concepts that made their structures different from a restaurant or cafe. First, diners were designed by draftsmen and built by craftsmen: “men of many different trades — carpenters, tile setters, metal workers, painters, cabinet makers, sign builders, plumbers, gas fitters, and electricians — combined their skills to produce a long and enduring tradition of building structures unlike any others.”
Second, diners “were built in factories to standard proportions, so they could be easily transported to their intended locations. They had to be low enough and narrow enough to travel on roads (a maximum of 17 feet wide) or railroads (no more than 10 feet, 6 inches). The length was determined by the number of seats desired or the size of the property.” And third, they had a basic design followed by all builders and assured the placement of kitchen equipment and food preparation areas along the back wall, counters and stool, sinks below the counter — with wider models allowing for additional tables and booths.
And, of course, there was the basic look: “On the outside, the diner resembled a railroad car, with either a long row of windows facing the street surmounted by a barrel roof or a monitor-style roofline that had a clerestory with a row of small operable windows. This similarity in appearance has caused a century-long confusion in which diners are often improperly described as ‘old railroad cars.’ Originally, the structure was made entirely of wood,” the curators write.
A generic design was the rule until the mid-1920s, with diners distinguishing themselves through a type of visual “trademark,” such as the vertical striping that O’Mahony used. But things soon changed. “As new materials were introduced into diners, the craftsmen came into their own with signature designs and flourishes. When Erwin Fedkenheuer Sr. of Paramount Diners introduced stainless steel trim, it opened up numerous possibilities for diner design. Stainless steel led the way to the ‘Golden Age of the Diner.’ The material was first used inside to trim windows, doors, iceboxes, cabinets, and matching shelves. Decorative hoods with menu boards and other signage became sculpture in the hands of the talented steel benders.”
By mid-century diners shed their vehicle look and assembled manufactured sections to create a “presence with their reflective stainless steel, immense neon signs, and giant plate-glass windows affording an inviting view into the well-lit and bustling interior. Pastel colors — pinks, greens, yellows, blues, and grays — defined the look of the decade. The kitchen operated behind closed, swinging doors and much of the counter action of the short-order cook moved out of sight as well. Entire sections were dining rooms filled with booth and table-service only. Ceramic tile walls yielded to Formica and tile floors gave way to terrazzo. As diners grew bigger and bigger, the small classic diners were replaced.”
Interesting the exhibition focuses on another once-familiar landmark on Route 1 in Lawrenceville: The Clarksville Diner and its history of life in and after New Jersey. The Silk City-built diner started in 1940 as the Princeton Grill. Located at what was once known as Clarksville at the north corner of Route 1 and Quaker Bridge Mall, the diner remained in operation until the early 1980s, when it was closed and slated for demolition. Then West Windsor-native Gordon C. Tindall entered the scene.
Tindall, who had relocated to Decorah, Iowa, had developed a passion for vintage diners and an interest in opening his own restaurant. During a trip home he spotted the diner, recalled his father’s frequency of the spot, and decided to save “a vanishing piece of architecture.” After purchasing the diner for $3,000, it was sent on a 1,000-mile journey to Iowa, where Tindall spent four years restoring and five years operating it.
The story then continues with a development that shows just how iconic the New Jersey diner is: the diner was sold to a French television executive director, and, according to the curators, “The Clarksville Diner left Iowa on October 19, 1998. It returned briefly to New Jersey, passing through the state on its way to Port Elizabeth. The diner was then shipped to Antwerp, Belgium, and eventually made its way to the headquarters of Canal Jimmy in Boulogne-Billancourt, on the western edge of Paris. The diner is not open to the public and is used mainly for private events and receptions.”
Fortunately for New Jerseyans, there are no such restrictions on New Jersey diners and residents can bask in being, in the words of the Star-Ledger newspaper, in a state that is “unrivaled as the diner capital of the Western world” — just save room on the menu for a brief trip to the Low House for more.
The Icons of American Culture: History of New Jersey Diners, Cornelius Low House Museum/Middlesex County Museum, 1225 River Road, Piscataway. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sundays and 1 to 4 p.m. through June, 2016. Free. 732-745-4177 or www.co.middlesex.nj.us/News/Pages/New-Exhibit-Offers-Unique-History-of-New-Jersey-Diners.aspx.