If you’ve ever visited New Jersey, there’s a pretty strong chance you’ve had breakfast, lunch, dinner or 2am munchies at a diner. You can truly see all walks of life here, from teens gabbing over late-night milkshakes and fries to octogenarian friends having the same matzoh ball soup they’ve been ordering weekly for 30 years.
With some 500 of these iconic eating establishments, New Jersey has more diners than any other state, which is why it’s known as the “Diner Capital of the World.”
New Jersey diner history
The history of the diner begins in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1872, when businessman Walter Scott started selling meals from the back of a horse-drawn wagon. These mobile eateries were popular throughout New England.
New Jerseyans like Jerry O’Mahony, founder of one of the first diner manufacturing companies, built permanent versions of the casual dining establishments out of mass-produced railway cars. The venture fed the large working-class population seeking cheap eats 24 hours a day along the state’s developing road network.
Throughout the 20th century, diners flourished in New Jersey. Not only were they places to get an affordable meal, but they were also roadside attractions in their own right, thanks to their signature neon-lit metallic aesthetic that developed during the post-war years.
While not every New Jersey diner features this retro style these days, the restaurants remain extremely popular for their extensive menus that cover everything from all-day breakfast to burgers to Greek specialities (a host of diners were opened by Greek families) to homemade pies.
And, of course, they’re some of the best places to get classic New Jersey dishes like pork roll (also known as Taylor ham) and disco fries.
Selecting the state’s best diners is no easy task. Most New Jerseyans are partial to one of their local spots, and they can and will argue why it’s superior to others. But we’ve pulled together a list of some of our favorite diners in New Jersey, based on a combination of their historical value and general popularity. That said, no matter which diner you visit, you’re all but guaranteed to have a fantastic meal.
Summit Diner – Summit
Best diner for nostalgia
Opened in 1928, the Summit Diner is believed to be the oldest still-operating diner in New Jersey. Its current building, however, is an original Jerry O’Mahony-built structure from 1939, featuring the classic train-car look.
Local lore purports that Ernest Hemingway once frequented this establishment. Although that may not be true, there’s one thing for sure: this is as authentic of a Jersey diner as they come, complete with old-school booths and a bar-stool-lined counter. Order up the sliders, which aren’t mini burgers, but mini Taylor ham, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches.
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Jefferson Diner – Lake Hopatcong
Best diner for giant portions
Despite having opened in 1985 – a relative newcomer by New Jersey diner standards – the Jefferson Diner embraces the retro diner aesthetic with neon lights and chrome exterior. It does, however, have the advantage over its older competitors in terms of scale, with quite a bit of seating indoors and out.
In its relatively short lifespan, the Jefferson Diner has received much attention, having starred in an episode of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. (He ordered the lobster bisque and moussaka.) The owners purchased Fieri’s 1967 Camaro SS from the show. It now sits outside the diner.
Skylark Fine Diner and Lounge – Edison
Best diner for breakfast
If the Jefferson Diner is comparatively young, then the Skylark Fine Diner and Lounge is practically an infant. Opened in 2006, Skylark is one of a new breed of New Jersey diners.
While it continues the tradition of a vast menu with American classics like omelettes and burgers and international dishes like miso ramen and cavatelli with sausage, it does so in far more modern digs. The interiors are far more ’80s than ’40s with plenty of geometric color blocking.
This new visual approach hasn’t deterred fans, including Jerry Seinfeld, who filmed an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee here.
Broad Street Diner – Keyport
Best diner for a good cup of coffee
Another Jerry O’Mahony design, the Broad Street Diner has gone through a number of name and ownership changes during its 70-year history, but its ’50s-style visual quintessence remains the same. (That’s largely because of a restoration project by its current owners that revived the retro look.)
Certainly a local favorite in the small seaside town, the diner is renowned for its dishes like chocolate babka French toast and broiled lobster tails stuffed with crab meat. And don’t expect crappy diner coffee here – the beans come from a private roaster.
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George’s Place – Cape May
Best diner for Greek specialties
Founded in 1968, Cape May stalwart George’s Place now has four locations, but you’ll want to drop by the original. Unlike most diners, which are standalone structures, George’s Place is a corner shop along a beachfront avenue, and it doesn’t have any of the traditional kitschy decor of Jersey diners. Instead, you’ll find terra cotta tile floors and green tabletops and tiled walls.
This is a heavily Greek-inspired diner, with menu highlights including gyros, falafel and pita.
Mustache Bill’s – Barnegat Light
Best diner for pancakes
After working in this seasonally open Jersey Shore legend since high school, current owner Bill Smith purchased this diner in 1972, just 13 years after it opened.
His entirely homemade dishes, which range from the catch of the day to chipped beef, caught the eye of the James Beard Foundation in 2009 when it bestowed an America’s Classic Award upon the restaurant.
But it’s Mustache Bill’s pancakes that are the talk of the town. The Cyclops, a pancake with an egg in the middle, is perhaps the diner’s most famous dish, though chefs will cook up pancakes in custom shapes to entertain their guests.
Tick Tock Diner – Clifton
Best diner for late-night munchies
As a proper Jersey diner should be, the Tick Tock Diner is customarily open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, which means it draws in hungry patrons from all across the state in search of a late-night meal.
Opened in 1948, it still retains all the classic diner charms on the outside (ahem, neon trim galore), though a 2019 renovation updated its interiors to include a modern take on Art Deco glam. Its menu got an overhaul, too, so while it still serves large-portioned diner dishes like disco fries (a riff on poutine), it also serves “elevated” options like scallops.
Rocker Mick Jagger is a fan of the Tick Tock Diner, having eaten here before putting on a show at nearby MetLife Stadium in 2019, during which he proclaimed his praise for its Taylor ham, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich and disco fries.
Tops Diner – East Newark
Best diner for classic diner grub
The original Tops Diner opened in 1942, but in 2021 the restaurant completed a controversial $11 million makeover that eliminated the original building’s well-worn diner aesthetic.
Some argue Tops has lost its true diner essence, and we agree to some extent – unfortunately, this is a trend with many of the state’s historic diners.
Still, the mainly international menu here that’s earned national acclaim is still (mostly) the same, and for that reason, Tops makes the list. Don’t miss the lobster mac and cheese and the Fatty Melt, a burger sandwiched between two grilled cheeses.
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