"If a diner could be this good, why were so many others so bad?"
There are lots of things about Moustache Bill’s Diner in Barnegat Light that should make an adventurous eater suspicious. The cute name doesn’t inspire confidence, the location (more of a summer resort than a residential community), and worst of all, the fact that it just won a James Beard Foundation “America’s Classic Award” which among other things, honors “unmatched hospitality.” OK, "unmatched hospitality" in New Jersey? This I gotta see.
I walked into Moustache Bill’s on a rainy morning and despite the nearly empty roads that led to it, the place was buzzing. It was a classic aluminum and chrome diner with a sort of greenhouse addition out back. People were talking about Bill, some praising him and others just wondering where he was. I didn’t get to join in because I was soon distracted by my waitress Nancy—a woman who possessed great charm, even more energy, and a fairly thick Latina accent.
I didn’t think twice about Nancy’s name or accent but she asked me “I’ll bet you never met a Spanish woman named Nancy before!” She was correct and so cheerfully enthusiastic that I didn’t have the heart to tell her it didn’t matter to me. But even at that moment, before I had a sip of coffee or a glance at the menu, I could see that this was a diner of unusual outgoing friendliness—just in a New Jersey sort of way. Was it “unmatched hospitality?” I guess so, but I’m from Edison where “unmatched hospitality” could be defined as “not getting a hate stare while you eat.”
Soon, Nancy put a mug of coffee down, dumped a few plastic creamers on the table next to it, and suddenly engaged me in a conversation about scrapple. “You from Philly?” she asked. “No, can I still have the scrapple?”
She was stammering, and I was proud of my special gift for giving people who try to be nice a hard time. Of course, if they truly were as nice as the Beard people say, it wouldn’t matter, and the Beard people were right.
When my breakfast—cinnamon raisin French toast with a side of scrapple—was in front of me, I stopped worrying about the crew and crowd and paid attention to the food. I confess that cinnamon raisin French toast is a sort of gimmick, but at the time, I felt it was common enough to be a benchmark. It was first class, nothing strange, distorted or misinterpreted. A proper portion of wholesome food. I cleaned my plate.
By the time I finished eating, I had fallen into the rhythm of the place and was wandering from table to table, asking people how their food was and taking pictures with my ancient and painfully slow digital camera. Everybody wanted to talk. They told me how wonderful their food was, their favorite towns in the Poconos, some asked me about Serious Eats, and a teenage girl introduced me to her grandparents.
The crew calls the extension that’s behind the counter and next to the kitchen the “museum room” and with good reason; its walls are covered with awards. That James Beard isn’t hanging there all by its lonesome. Indeed, every sort of positive press mention is perma-plaqued and on the wall.
Still, something was bothering me and I had a hard time putting my finger on it. Finally, I realized what it was.
If a diner could be this good, why were so many others so bad? How come they served huge plates of mystery crunch instead of normal portions of real food? What was the purpose of those strange salad bars where every item looks like it’s immersed in coffee creamer? The acidic coffee? And those giant, puffy cakes?
Moustache Bill’s created a perfect small-town café in the shell of a diner and just did away with every negative thing that “New Jersey Diner” conjured up. For this, they got a James Beard Award (I’d nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize if I knew how.) and a huge crowd of loyal customers. If only more of their competitors got the message.
Moustache Bill’s Diner
8th and Broadway, Barnegat Light New Jersey (map)