When I first started writing about places in New Jersey, it quickly became clear that I had a lot to learn about diners. I had some idea of their present reputation but no idea of how they came to be that way. A decade ago, I knew diners as garish restaurants that tried to put on a show with bright lights and huge portions; and though diners often had Greek and Italian items, those dishes bore no resemblance to those same dishes as offered in nearby Greek and Italian restaurants. For the most part, they were a disappointment. Sometimes "horror" would be a better description.
Yes, there are exceptions; Moustache Bill's Diner won a James Beard Award for offering great food. So I tested and tasted and developed some rules along the way. If the lighting were bright enough to offer a UV sunburn hazard, I stayed away. If ninety percent of the customers waddle out with large "doggie bags," I knew that the appeal wasn't deliciousness. It was for that reason that I sought out the proto-diner, the place that offered the food that was eaten here before pizza, dosas, and General Tso came along.
Enter the Summit Diner—right across the street from the train station in Summit. It's a town home to some of New Jersey's wealthy and powerful. Jim Cramer, the screaming stock market expert, is a regular; so is Jon Corazine, the former governor. Rumor has it that the Summit diner is walking distance from their homes.
If the diner as home to the State's power elite isn't enough, take a look at the building itself. It's too perfect to believe—shining art deco chrome on the outside and red leatherette and mosaic on the inside. The lighting is comfortable, the staff cheerful, and the customers eating away.
Sit at the black and white (fake?) marble counter and plant yourself on an eminently spinnable stool. Like a Federalist house in Crosswicks or Harmony, the Summit Diner is well-preserved because somebody bent over backwards to do so. It was delivered in 1939 as an upgrade from an earlier 1929 model.
Without question, the Summit Diner is what diners were, before too much in the diner world went terribly wrong. Warm from the food cooking on the grill, cheerful because skilled cooks produce food on a human scale, and a friendly island in a real town, this place is a lesson to the rest of the state and perhaps the rest of the world. Whoever coined the phrase "small is beautiful" must have eaten here. Indeed, they probably got a platter large enough to make them feel sated, but not large enough to be stupefied.
And the food? Taylor Ham and Eggs (about six dollars) as it's served here should be named the official New Jersey state historical breakfast; a throwback to a day when people in all walks of life had time to eat a cooked breakfast. There's a long list of dishes available here, but if you need to see a menu, maybe you should be eating someplace else.
The Summit Diner
1 Union Place, Summit NJ 07901 (map) 908-277-3256